After much speculation that it would pull out of China entirely, Google elected last week to lob the ball into China’s court. On Monday, March 22 Google announced on its official blog that it would stop censoring its search results in that country. David Drummond, Google’s Senior Vice President for Corporate Development and Chief Legal Officer, attributed the decision in part to “a sophisticated cyber attack originating from China” and “evidence [suggesting] that the Gmail accounts of dozens of human rights activists connected with China were being routinely accessed by third parties.” Drummond stated that although “the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement,” he believes this decision to stop censoring search results is “entirely legal and will meaningfully increase access to information for people in China.”

Google is now re-directing visitors from to, which provides uncensored searching delivered via their servers in Hong Kong. However, Eddan Katz, International Affairs Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), reports that the Chinese government is already restricting access to the Hong Kong-based Google site. Visitors are reporting seeing a “Can’t Find Page” error message. In anticipation of this reaction, Google created a new webpage monitoring access to its services in China following this announcement. Several popular services, including YouTube and Blogger, were immediately blocked.

Ron Diebert, director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which studies the intersection of digital policy and human rights, noted that the environment in China had become “unsustainable” and that the “risks were too great.” Evidencing its concern over possible reaction from China, Drummond was careful to note in the posting that Google’s Chinese employees had nothing to do with Monday’s decision:

Finally, we would like to make clear that all these decisions have been driven and implemented by our executives in the United States, and that none of our employees in China can, or should, be held responsible for them. Despite all the uncertainty and difficulties they have faced since we made our announcement in January, they have continued to focus on serving our Chinese users and customers. We are immensely proud of them.

Some observers are claiming this move is a de facto withdrawal from China on Google’s part. Others are more optimistic. Katz, of the EFF, stated that the move “demonstrates that a company like Google, with the business stakes in a market as large as China, can make the decision that free and open Internet is a better business alternative and a better ethical choice for its users.” Diebert counters that China may react more strongly than the optimists expect by banning not only access to Google but by also blocking all outside search engines from accessing Internet information in China. He worries that such a move would create a “regionalized Internet” and embolden other restrictive countries like Iran to do the same.

In the days and weeks leading up to this announcement, the Chinese media have been critical of Google and its motives. A Sunday editorial in the Xinhua news agency rebuked Google’s actions, stating, “Compliance with the country’s laws and regulations is also standard practice for international businesses. . . . Despite the colonial era when a foreign company such as the British East India Company could assume an overriding power over a sovereign state, in modern times an individual foreign company never gains the upper hand when it’s in trouble with a country’s laws.” The media is thus portraying Google’s decision not to censor–and to therefore violate Chinese law–as a disrespectful act of an imperialistic company.

In some respects, the biased Chinese media is correct. A fundamental principle of state sovereignty is that a country has the right to set the laws within its borders and have those laws respected. However, countries have determined, through vehicles such as treaties and U.N. resolutions, that some actions are outside a country’s power, such as crimes against humanity. Several U.N. instruments, especially the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), hold that freedom of expression and the right to access information are fundamental rights that are protected by international law. Article 19(2) of the ICCPR states, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” (Interestingly, China signed, but did not ratify, this treaty.) There is thus precedent for Google’s civil disobedience of a law it could argue is in violation of human rights.

The stage is thus set for a battle between foreign policy, state sovereignty, and technology.

Rachel Perkins

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