It looks as if Google could end its services in China. The internet giant launched its Chinese-language services in 2006, and has been dogged by controversy over its agreement to censor search results in accordance with Beijing's wishes. But now, in what is being seen as a direct challenge to the Chinese government, Google says it will stop censoring search results.
This is in response to a "sophisticated and targeted" attempt to hack into the email accounts of human rights activists, originating from China. The Chinese government was not mentioned, but it is well known that hackers are sanctioned by the government to probe important organisations.
It is unlikely that the Chinese government will allow the company to continue operations once the filters are removed.
Google's original acceptance of censorship attracted harsh criticism. Critics argued that it went against the company's motto, "Don't be evil", although the firm maintained that it would be more damaging to civil liberties were it to pull out completely.
International human rights groups -- many of which were critical of Google's initial decision to accept Chinese government regulation -- have jumped to endorse the decision. Human Rights Watch said the move was important for human rights online:
A transnational attack on privacy is chilling, and Google's response sets a great example. At the same time, this incident underscores the need for governments and companies to develop policies that safeguard rights.
But what has the reaction been within China? The combination of the language barrier and the very state censorship that has triggered this dispute makes it difficult to tell with any certainty. #GoogleCN is a trending topic on Twitter, but makes for frustrating browsing if you don't read Chinese.
The initial signs, however, are that the Chinese public does not want the search giant to leave. The Wall Street Journal asked users of both its English- and Chinese-language sites to vote on the question: "Should Google leave China?" At last glance, 80 per cent of voters on the English site said Yes. By contrast, 72 per cent on the Chinese site said No. Some readers on the site commented that it would be a "tragedy" if Google left. This split in opinion could demonstrate that, while it is easy for us in the west to pontificate on issues such as the endorsement of censorship by a major company, for those in China, Google (which only partly censored material) was making possible a step towards freedom of speech.
There have been reports that some supporters are camped outside the office in Wudaokou, voicing their support for internet freedom. Shanghaiist features a photo of people laying flowers outside Google's offices; however, 700 jobs will be lost if the company does close its Chinese operation. The website also says that a Chinese translation of the Google statement was "harmonised" very quickly.
The blogger Xiang Ligang (translated here) draws attention to Google's business interests, saying:
I think Google's announcement is basically a kind of psychological warfare and is unlikely to be implemented, otherwise the losing side is Google and the netizen. However, the majority of Chinese internet users will forget this incident in no more than three months and only few people will remember it occasionally, like ripples on a pool of water.
The same website translates some comments from Chinese web users expressing support for Google:
"2 possible outcomes: more freedom or no freedom"
"Baidu [Chinese-run search engine] is a puppet downloading, Google finally stands up"
"I definitely support Google, definitely do not bow to the Celestial Kingdom [Chinese government]."
So, the Chinese reception of the news appears to be bitter-sweet. Beijing recognises the statement being made, but also the possibility that the state censorship machine has the capacity to ensure that, in a few months, Google will be just a distant memory.