In 2000, Google added Chinese as a language for its search engine. For years, the accessibility of the Google site in China was hit or miss. The Chinese government through its licensed Internet service providers caused the site to be slow and unreliable through its heavy filtering of the search results, and at times blocked it entirely.
In 2006, Google and the Chinese government came to an agreement that Google would create a special version of its search engine just for China, called Google.cn. China required Google to censor certain websites with content it objected to (e.g., criticisms of the Chinese government, accounts of the massacre in Tiananmen Square, pornography), and Google received access to the massive Chinese market, not just for its search engine but for some of its other operations. Google added as a condition of censorship that they be allowed to run a disclaimer alerting any users of Google.cn when the search results had been censored.
Google was heavily criticized by human rights activists and others for making a “deal with the devil” by cooperating with the Chinese government censors out of fear of losing the potential profits of the Chinese market. Google’s response was along the lines of the “constructive engagement” argument offered by Reagan-era conservatives for cooperating with the government of South Africa and other right wing dictatorships, namely that you can have more influence with an entity by maintaining ties with it than by cutting it loose and refusing to deal with it. Google contended that in the short run the censorship would be milder if they did it than if the heavy-handed Chinese Internet service provider underlings did it, and that in the long run, hastening China’s modernization and technological development would create a pro-freedom dynamic that the Chinese government would be unable to contain.
The makeshift alliance between Google and the Chinese government was never a smooth one. China groused that Google wasn’t always censoring Google.cn as much as they’d agreed to, especially concerning pornographic content. China still filtered and intermittently blocked the regular Google search engine. Google charged that they and other companies had been the victims of sophisticated cyber attacks launched from China, and that hackers based in China had obtained access to confidential Google e-mail (gmail) accounts of Chinese human rights activists, the implication being that the Chinese government was behind these misdeeds.
In January 2010, Google announced that it no longer was willing to continue the censorship agreement with the Chinese government, and that it planned to shut down Google.cn unless the Chinese government agreed that the results need no longer be censored. The Chinese government refused to budge, and in March 2010, Google followed through and redirected Google.cn to the uncensored Hong Kong version of Google. (Hong Kong is a part of China, but due to its peculiar history it is largely autonomous in its domestic affairs.)
Access within China to this version of Google remains subject to the vagaries of China’s Internet service providers’ filters.
Many who believe Google was correct to pull out of China rather than cooperate with censorship, contend that it is still open to criticism for waiting too long to make that decision, and for not pulling out more fully. “Too little, too late,” in other words.