HONG KONG, China — Google’s biggest move against Chinese censorship in two years has won plenty of applause in the West, but skeptics say it does nothing to help Chinese web users themselves.
Last week, the internet giant rolled out a new feature on its Hong Kong-based search site that warns users when a term they are searching for will be blocked, resulting in being shut out from Google for a minute and a half.
Because Google does not comply with Chinese censors — as China’s largest search engine, Baidu, does — the government automatically blocks a wide range of words, including some apparently benign and non-political terms. “Yangtze River,” for example, lands users in the penalty box because of its similarity in Chinese to the name for former president Jiang Zemin.
Google rolled out the feature to plenty of fanfare, with an official blog post and video demonstrating how it works. It is the company’s most confrontational public move against China’s censors since it left the mainland in 2010 after it was hacked by Chinese attackers.
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But will it actually make a difference for China’s internet users at large?
Some experts say that Google’s policy is a lot less productive than other ways of bringing better information to Chinese users.
Tricia Wang, a sociologist researching the digital habits of Chinese people, sees this as a sign that Google is trying to be nothing more than a “niche search engine in China."
“I don’t see how this actually reaches their goal,” she says. “First it only antagonizes the government more, and thereby could make it even harder for the existing user base to access Google. So it could be counterproductive. Second, it’s targeting people who are already their existing users, so they’re preaching to the preachers."
Ordinary Chinese users are aware of censorship, she says, but what matters most to them is getting useful results. Google's new policy does not make that any easier. The only difference is that now, people searching for the Yangtze River on Google will get a warning to change their language or be blocked. On Baidu, people can search directly for the Yangtze because the politically sensitive results have already been weeded out.
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Beyond search results, Wang says that Google simply lacks many features that Chinese users want. In Baidu, users can look up train schedules or play Angry Birds within the browser, while Google offers none of that.
“I just don't think that they understand the Chinese market at all,” she says. “They don’t have any features that makes it overwhelmingly useful for China. ... This feature that they implemented, it's a very self congratulatory, pat on the shoulders, 'hey, we did it' — and does not actually do anything to widen their user base."
Dave Lyons, a Beijing-based information science researcher, notes on his blog that most Chinese users who really want to find banned information already know how to use VPNs and other tools to circumvent censorship.
“If Google were serious about this, they would develop their own built-in circumvention tools,” says Lyons, “but they won’t — because that’s a bridge too far — and so I can’t help but think that the real audience for Google’s move isn’t in China but … global users who, they hope, will start having warm, fuzzy feelings about Google as a fearless advocate for free speech.”
Though the feature may not matter to the vast majority of China’s netizens, it comes as part of a broader Google campaign against state attacks on internet freedom. Last week, the California company announced a new policy of telling Gmail users if their accounts were compromised by state-sponsored cyberattacks.
In the following days, many China-based journalists and political activists admitted that they had received the warning message. Evan Osnos, a reporter for the New Yorker in Beijing, was stunned when the note appeared in his inbox.
"Living in Beijing, writing about politically sensitive things now and then, you get used to the idea that somebody, somewhere, might be watching." he writes. "But it is usually an abstract threat."
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