by James Hyatt

There’s no “I’m feeling lucky” button to hit in the escalating Google-China dispute.

Google_China_IllegalFlowerTribute1_via WikimediaAt noon March 22, Google posted on its Official Blog an update about “A new approach to China,” indicating that China’s behavior toward human rights activists and other efforts “to further limit free speech on the web in China” had led Google to stop censoring its search services on the Google.cn site. and instead redirect traffic to its Hong Kong-based servers.

“Users visiting Google.cn are now being redirected to Google.com.hk, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China.”

Google further explained:

“Figuring out how to make good on our promise to stop censoring search on Google.cn has been hard. We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainland China, yet the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement. We believe this new approach of providing uncensored search in simplified Chinese from Google.com.hk is a sensible solution to the challenges we’ve faced—it’s entirely legal and will meaningfully increase access to information for people in China. We very much hope that the Chinese government respects our decision, though we are well aware that it could at any time block access to our services. We will therefore be carefully monitoring access issues, and have created this new web page, which we will update regularly each day, so that everyone can see which Google services are available in China.”

Google’s announcement followed weeks of speculation about its future course in China.   In January, the company announced that it had been the victim of cyber attacks aimed at gaining access to the email accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

The U.S. government seemed to line up squarely behind Google, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging other American technology companies to make a “principled stand” on attempts at Internet censorship.  In February, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin sent letters to 30 information and communications technology companies – including Apple, Facebook, Skype and Twitter – seeking information about their human rights practices in China.

Google said it intends to continue R&D work in China and to maintain a sale presence there, though its activities would be partially dependent on the ability of mainland Chinese users to access the .hk site.

Blocking Key Words

The announcement prompted China to declare, through its Xinhua news agency, that Google has “violated its written promise” and is “totally wrong” by stopping censoring its Chinese language searching results and blaming China for alleged hacker attacks.

It quoted an official in charge of the Internet bureau under the State Council Information Office as saying: “We’re uncompromisingly opposed to the politicization of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts.”

The official said the government had met twice recently with Google to discuss the issues and told the company “we would still welcome its operation and development in China if it was willing to abide by Chinese laws, while it would be its own affair if it was determined to withdraw its services.”

A separate signed article declared that “Google is politicalizing itself” and said “no country allows unrestricted flow on the Internet of pornographic, violent, gambling or superstitious content, or content on government subversion, ethnic separatism, religious extremism, racialism, terrorism and anti-foreign feelings.”

China deploys a vast bureaucracy to impose censorship on the nation’s nearly 400 million Internet users.  The country is able to block web transmissions containing material using key words considered offensive, unpatriotic or dangerous and block user access to web servers.

Some topics are deemed particularly sensitive. According to a 2007 analysis prepared by a Chinese technician for Reporters Without Borders and the group Chinese Human Rights Defenders, any words associated with the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy students – such as “unrest,” “rioting,” “massacre” and”uprising” and even the date “1989.6.4” have been banned from the Internet.

And the country frequently bans newspaper and web articles involving official corruption, criticism of the government, or exposes of local health and safety problems.

Google has tried to tread a fine line in its Chinese operations, seeking to tap a vast market while trying to operate under Chinese constraints.

Shares of Chinese search company Baidu have risen about 50% since Google indicated earlier this year that it might leave the country.

Chinese officials have insisted the dispute wouldn’t change the country’s policies toward Western investment.

Photo: ” Illegal Flower Tribute,” January 2010, by Xhacker.  Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.