US cable reveals Google's motives for China censorship

Google kept quiet about how China's internet bottleneck influenced its decision to allow state censorship, to avoid other countries following suit, according to a US cable published by Wikileaks

Google's decision to allow state censorship of its search results in China was partly influenced by the country's internet structure, a leaked cable published by Wikileaks has shown.

Chinese flag

A US diplomatic cable from 2006 published by Wikileaks has revealed a second reason for Google agreeing to censor traffic in China, in addition to its publicly stated motive.

When Google launched at the start of 2006, it said it was doing so because failing to offer its search services to a fifth of the world's population would compromise its mission to make information universally accessible. As a condition of being allowed to host its services within China, Google agreed to have its search results censored.

However, a cable published by Wikileaks last week revealed a second reason: the fact that there is only one internet gateway into China forced Google to give in to the government's demands, in a way that is not necessary in most other countries.

Egypt comparison

The cable, dated 26 September, 2006, came from the US embassy in Cairo. It reported on a discussion between officials at the Egyptian embassy and Sherif Iskander, who was Google's regional manager for the Middle East and North Africa at the time.

Iskander was being questioned about Google's attitude towards censorship in Egypt. In that country, Google did not do any filtering itself but rather allowed local ISPs to censor locally, as was done with all internet content under the leadership of former president Hosni Mubarak. US Economic Office (EconOff) officials asked Iskander why Google did not take the same approach in China.

"Iskander responded that unlike Egypt, Google needed to host its Chinese services from China due to the way the Chinese are connected to the internet," the cable read. "The company was thus required to implement censorship itself."

The cable also reported Iskander as saying "Google has publicly given a different reason for why it hosts its Chinese services from China, namely that the sheer size of the Chinese market requires locally-hosted services for efficiency".

In addition, Google had held back from giving the network-related explanation publicly, so as not to give any other countries ideas about closing their internet off in the same way China did, according to the cable.

Google is walking a fine line with this approach to censorship [in Egypt], neither endorsing nor pushing back against limits on freedom of information.

– US diplomatic cable

Commenting on Iskander's interview, embassy officials noted that "Google is walking a fine line with this approach to censorship [in Egypt], neither endorsing nor pushing back against limits on freedom of information".

"The strong blowback from its censorship in China may have pushed the company to try this different approach," the officials wrote.

In response to the cable's revelations, Google said "these statements are from 2006 and do not reflect either our views or our actions". It told ZDNet UK "the employee in question left Google several years ago".

Chinese gateways

However, Iskander himself, now head of online services at the Arab media company Rotana, explained his reference to "the way the Chinese are connected to the internet" to ZDNet UK. He said Google was able to avoid filtering content in Egypt because that country had multiple international bandwidth providers, so there was no single point of entry where blanket censorship could be imposed. The Chinese situation was very different, he said.

"In China, the gateways are all owned and operated by the government, and hence are a very convenient single point for censorship and filtration implementation," Iskander said in an email.

"The other issue with China is that the majority of the traffic is inside China, and hence these international gateways are not scaled well enough to really cope with substantial traffic, and hence hosting large-scale services outside China is pretty impractical since they would be choked at that bottleneck," he said.

Iskander stressed that the cable was wrong to imply that the market-related reason publicly given by Google for the Chinese censorship was less valid because of the other, network-related explanation.

In China, the gateways are all owned and operated by the government, and hence are a very convenient single point for censorship and filtration implementation.

– Sherif Iskander

"The public statement was not really a different reason," Iskander said. "I just did not clarify how China is connected differently so that other countries would not pick up the hint and put legislation in place to consolidate the internet gateways."

In the event, four years after Google launched, it decided to stop filtering its results. The move, in January 2010, followed a series of cyberattacks on Google and other companies, with the Gmail accounts of anti-Chinese-government activists providing some of the targets.

Google began redirecting Chinese users to its Hong Kong site, where it provides unfiltered results. It later stopped the automatic redirects and instead created a new Chinese landing page, which offered a link through to the Hong Kong site. By making this change, Google was allowed to keep its licence to operate in China.

Get the latest technology news and analysis, blogs and reviews delivered directly to your inbox with ZDNet UK's newsletters.