Google has made its decision on China: it's moving search to Hong Kong.
Google has shut down its Google.cn site and is redirecting users to Google.com.hk, where it will offer uncensored Chinese-language search services. The company will maintain a research and development organization in China as well as a sales office, it announced Monday.
"Figuring out how to make good on our promise to stop censoring search on Google.cn has been hard," Google said in a statement. "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."
Google first signaled its intention to change its stance on China in January, when it announced that it no longer intended to censor its search results in China and would shut down Google.cn if an agreement could not be worked out with the Chinese government. The company had also hinted that it might consider pulling out the country entirely.
The announcement came as Google disclosed that it had been the victim of a cyberattack that security experts believe was carried out by hackers working on behalf of the Chinese government, which China has denied. More than 30 U.S. companies were targeted by the attacks, which Google said resulted in the theft of some of its intellectual property.
Since January, however, the company has said very little about its intentions in China. Google representatives declined to comment on its decision regarding China beyond the blog post.
Google specifically declined to comment on whether it coordinated its announcement with either the Chinese government or the U.S. government, which has taken a very close interest in Google's decision to stop coordinating with Chinese government censors. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered a policy speech in January praising Google for its actions and urging Internet companies to do their part in upholding freedom on the Internet.
During a press briefing on Monday afternoon, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was asked about Google's redirection of Chinese users to its Hong Kong site. He said he was aware of the issue, but added that "I need to find out what discussions were had here this morning",
Gibbs had said a few minutes earlier, before Google's announcement, that the president believes that "open government and the ability to communicate among people without the censorship of government is tremendously important."
Earlier in the day, Clinton had told Bloomberg TV that the China decision was Google's to make. "We are not going to be telling Google what to do," Clinton said. "They have to make the decision that they believe is in the best interests of their company."
Dating back to 2006, Google has rationalized the need to censor some of its search results by saying its goal is to improve access to information in general for Chinese Internet users. Business considerations certainly played a part: China is home to the most Internet users on the planet and will be a huge source of future growth given that only about one quarter of the country actively uses the Internet.
But the company has struggled with the censorship question ever since. Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who was born in the Soviet Union, is said to have been personally troubled by Google's cooperation with government censors and to have been the primary voice behind Google's decision to change its policy toward the country.
Google launched a China dashboard of sorts on Monday to accompany its announcement, mimicking the Apps Status Dashboard that lets Google Apps customers know if there's a problem with those services. The page (which can be found here) will list how the Chinese government is treating various Google services on a day-to-day basis.
"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," Google said in its blog post.
It's not clear what will happen to Google employees in China following its decision. "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," Google said.
It's possible that Google might have to let some employees go as the result of its decision, but most will be directed to work on Google.com.hk, a source familiar with Google's operations in China said. The source said Google believes that staying on the mainland of China is important to the development of its Chinese language products, and it will be adding Simplified Chinese to the list of language options available on the Hong Kong-based Web site.
After China reclaimed Hong Kong from the British in 1997, it has allowed the tiny territory to set its own rules that often differ markedly from Beijing's.
The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration created the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and said that "rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press" will be "ensured by law".
China also left intact the Hong Kong Bill of Rights, which says that "fundamental human rights" will be respected. Since then, local journalists have observed occasional threats to press freedom, especially relating to criticisms of China's State Council, but the kind of strict Internet censorship that exists in China remains unknown in Hong Kong.
Reporters Without Borders' 2009 survey of press freedom ranked Hong Kong at 48 out of 175 nations, in between Spain and Italy, making it the most tolerant place in Asia. A 2007 report from Amnesty International says that while fears of repression before the Chinese takeover were not justified, Hong Kong officials have missed chances to "take concrete steps to enhance protection of the basic human rights and freedoms."
Arvind Ganesan, who specializes in business and human rights at Human Rights Watch, called Google's move a "strong step in favor of freedom of expression and information, and an indictment of the Chinese government's insistence on censorship of the Internet" in a statement sent to ZDNet Asia's sister site CNET.
"Google's decision to offer an uncensored search engine is an important step to challenge the Chinese government's use of censorship to maintain its control over its citizens," Ganesan said.
Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.
This article was first published as a blog post on CNET News.