A bittersweet day for Googlers as search giant turns back on China

It’s a surreal idea — the world’s best-known Internet company facing off with the government of the world’s most populous nation. It’s a company versus an entire state.

Google may have lost the battle today by ceasing censorship of its Chinese search engine. It’s now redirecting traffic to its unfiltered Hong Kong counterpart, an approach that’s technically legal because the region doesn’t face censorship laws. However, the move all but guarantees that the Chinese government will further block its properties. It may be years before we find out whether openness wins, as co-founder Sergey Brin said in a New York Times interview today.

In any case, it’s a bittersweet day for employees, who say they’re proud to see it take a stand, but sad to potentially walk away from a market that the company had invested so many resources in, according to a half-dozen we spoke to based in the U.S. and China. One employee, who was born overseas, said he’s never been prouder to work for the company, while another engineer said that Brin won a standing ovation at a recent company meeting on the matter.

Brin told the Times today that growing up in the Soviet Union where public expression was controlled had definitely shaped his thinking and influenced his decision.

Most Google employees found out the news just moments before senior vice president David Drummond posted a public statement about the move on the company’s blog, said the engineer. But employees based in China had been preparing for such a decision for weeks.

While the company said publicly today that it intends to keep research and development and sales employees based in the country, one longtime employee said there are already plans to move several key China-based executives to other offices.

Still another source, who works for the company, was hopeful that the company’s move would help shape foreign policy.

“Google has actually moved ahead of and led the U.S. government,” she said.

Indeed, less than two weeks after Drummond first began talking openly about the sea change in the company’s China strategy in January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a prominent speech making uncensored Internet access a centerpiece of foreign policy.

“We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas,” Clinton said in Washington D.C. “And we recognize that the world’s information infrastructure will become what we and others make of it.” It will be interesting to see how long this language persists, given that China is one of the U.S.’s two largest creditors.

Whatever comes out of the matter, the last few months have made it clear that that web may become increasingly siloed for political ends. Iran’s telecommunications agency said in February that it would permanently suspend Gmail and roll out its own state e-mail service instead.

It’s still unclear what China’s response will be. The state media agency Xinhua quoted a Chinese government official who said that Google had “violated its written promise.”

“This is totally wrong. 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. Chinese entrepreneurs and investors we spoke to in January said that while Google’s departure was unfortunate, it probably wouldn’t impact the country’s tech scene too much.

The search company is making a risky bet. China needs Google less than Google needs the country’s potential market opportunity. In the short run, Google will probably have to abandon the four years of energy and capital it spent building operations in the country. But in the long run, Brin is hoping that China’s “half an Internet” strategy will fall short.


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