Six months ago, Google loudly trumpeted a brave stand against censorship in China. Now it's quietly committed an act of cowardice. In May 2012, it announced an anti-censorship feature – under the pretext of improving search quality – with a public blog post. In December, it got rid of the measure which notified Chinese users when keywords they were searching for would trigger the country's Great Firewall content blocking system – without telling its users. The switch-off only came to light thanks to the vigilance of Greatfire.org, a not-for-profit organisation that monitors censorship in China. The group called the move "self-censorship" but it's worse than that – it's a white flag of surrender.
From the moment Google introduced the feature, the Chinese internet censors fought back. But the ingenuity of Google's engineers got round each block until they finally embedded the entire function in HTML on Google's start page. That meant to block the notifications, China would have to block Google altogether. Inevitably, the search engine did end up blocked in its entirety more than once before the feature been activated. Gmail was also subject to blocks and a noticeable slowdown in performance. In the stand-off, Google blinked first. At a time when the Chinese government is strengthening its internet censorship measures, the firm has effectively admitted it just can't beat them and is no longer willing to try.
Though Google's share of search in China is under five per cent, that still amounts to more than 25 million users, and despite moving its services to Hong Kong in 2010, it won't abandon that market. Reports in recent weeks have suggested that it's on the cusp of a partnership with local search company, Qihoo 360, to take on the dominant player, Baidu. With that in mind, it seems like a remarkable coincidence that it has now decided to throw in the towel and drop the notifications. The company's unofficial mantra – "don't be evil" – becomes more threadbare with ever year.
While it's arguable that notifying users when they were about to be censored was a small thing, it put Google on the right side of the fight for free expression. By ceasing to indicate when its results are interfered with by the Great Firewall, Google has made itself complicit in the process. The company's desire to maintain a foothold in the Chinese market outweighs its highfalutin' rhetoric on the openness of the web and freedom of speech. China's censors must be delighted that Google has silenced itself.