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.
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 Google.cn 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
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
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
"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".
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.
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
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 Google.cn, 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
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.
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