Why it’s Good that Google.cn Leaves + SEM (2)Written by Julen Madariaga on January 22nd, 2010
Back on the job. On re-read, I have the feeling that I might have been too optimistic yesterday. Sure, the style of Google’s announcement betrayed personal involvement, and once at the negotiation table it is to be expected that a more businesslike atmosphere will prevail. But even if G shuts up, it is not sure that the CCP will let them get away with it. Depending on who they have at the table, the outcome will be anything between the two extremes we have considered.
But let’s leave our bipolar guesswork aside for a while, so we can concentrate on a more interesting issue. Namely, that it’s great that Google.cn is going to disappear, and that whatever happens to the rest of the Gs, the Chinese internet will be a better place when Google.cn is gone. Let’s start with some crude survey work:
Baidu, Google.cn or Google.com?
I improvised a little survey today in the office, where I asked three of my young Shanghai colleagues which search engines they like to use. Interestingly, the answers were very similar, and all included some form of the following statements:
- Baidu.com is better for local information and Chinese culture.
- Google.cn we use sometimes for international information.
- Google.com? Nah, that’s for foreigners.
These results are surprising, because as we saw yesterday, Google.com and Google.cn are exactly the same engine. It doesn’t make any sense to search on Google.cn, where anything as innocent as 胡锦涛 (HuJintao) is obviously SEM manipulated. For the first experiment of the day we can see how, using this slightly conflictive term, results start to differ between G.com and G.cn. Try the links, see where there’s a Wikipedia article missing?
But the best of all is the answer given by the sample colleagues when I insist on why they use Google.cn: Oh well, the browsers here direct you to Google.cn by default. That is probably the main reason why G.cn is ranked 3rd on Alexa for China, while G.com is only ranked 6th.
Hey, wait a second. Are you telling me that all it takes to get an identical, non SEM-ed Google Search in China is to type a “.com”, and 300 million netizens haven’t noticed in the last 4 years? Well, yeah. Kind of. Let me introduce you to:
The Chinese censorship and its peculiar victims
This is one of the most misunderstood aspects of Chinese censorship in the West. I realized this with the crazy Wang post, the one that was linked in an article 3 days straight on the Most Read list of the New York Times. I got lots of hits, and also lots of mail from creative Americans proposing ideas to help “free the Chinese” from the claws of the GFW.
But listen, the sad reality is, the CCP’s systems of censorship are so effective not because they are diabolically sophisticated, but because… because the Chinese netizens can’t give a damn if they are being censored by their government or not.
You don’t believe me? Then perhaps you have a better theory to explain why nobody uses the widely available, free web proxies to surf the internet. Or why the majority of Chinese netizens still use Google.cn when they have an identical search engine that is not manipulated on Google.com
Shocking, right? But not so much. The truth is that, in spite of popular funny memes and the occasional juvenile rant, the majority of Chinese who are rich enough to use the internet are happy with the status quo. They do find it mildly annoying to be treated like children by the CCP, but as long as the bills are paid, they don’t think so much of it.
And this is also why, if someone wants to create a device against the GFW, the user activated systems like proxies or Tor are not effective, because people simply don’t use them. The idea of a Server Side Proxy, or the Unblockable Host that would unblock a site WITHOUT action by the end user, was discussed here, and I concluded it was not feasible.
This is also the reason why initiatives like Chrter 08 never make it in China: it is not about users trying to get access to dissident sites, it is about dissidents unable to market their ideas to a general population that is unreceptive.
Advanced SEM for Dummies (Search Engine Manipulation)
The most amusing thing in the Google crisis is all the commentators crying about the loss of Google.cn and its negative consequences for the freedom of the Chinese. In fact, I maintain that Google.cn is the most evil product to ever have existed in the Chinese internet, and the World will be a better place without it.
That is because, unlike the Chinese official sites that practice censorship, what the search engines do is manipulation. Why? Because Google.cn is not a content site in itself, it is a gateway to the internet. When people type in a keyword into the search field, they are actually trusting it to return a fair picture of what is on the net.
When you type a “sensitive” term and G.cn removes all the results except the People’s Daily and Xinhua, Google’s responsibility is double: not only it supports those often objectible views on the first page, but it also implicitly states that it is the ONLY opinion existing in the World.
And the worse is, the Chinese who believed that would be right to do so, because Google’s well known principles clearly specify their commitment to give all the information available in a democratic way. The little warning message that is displayed on Google.cn SEM searches is meant to avoid this situation, but it is tiny and often placed right at the bottom of the page, so most Chinese users just ignore it.
In the case of Google.cn, SEM is not about “good” or “evil”. It is about breaking the very principles that give a sense to the Google company, and it is understandable that Google has never been comfortable with it.
|Normal Results||Normal Results|
|Hu Jing Tao
|Normal Results||SEM Results|
|RC trigger string||chinayouren-free.comg
|RC Block||Normal Results|
All tests in Chinese, English spelling is on purpose. The anomaly in the chinayouren string
Google.com and the GFW URL/IP blocks
One clarification is necessary here: when we say Google.com is free of SEM, it doesn’t mean that it is entirely uncensored. Google.com is hosted outside China, so it suffers from GFW blocks, in particular URL string blocks, like all the sites hosted out of the mainland. A funny way to test this block is to introduce the string “chinayouren-free.comg” in any site search like Wikipedia, Yahoo, etc hosted out of China. The RC block is guaranteed! (fortunately I have changed my URL since and I managed to unblock my blog).
A less funny example is when you search things like FLG, the famous religion fiercely opposed to the CCP. Google passes the characters of FLG to the URL, and this triggers the RC. And here is where we see the evil of Google.cn compared to Google.com:
- Google.com gives a very disruptive RC, unmistakable sign of GFW block. This is plain censorship. Try here.
- Google.cn gives results from People’s Daily and Xinhua, the second of which starts: “FLG: the evil nature of the bloody…”. This is SEM manipulation. Try here.
Add to this that, for obvious practical reasons, the Chinese government cannot RC block too many common terms, or it would make the internet unusable. There are far less terms RC’ed on Google.com than terms SEM-ed on Google.cn, which is the reason why it is fairly easy, using Google.com in China, to get to very explicit material about Tiananmen 89 and many other delicate subjects. And even when those sites often are blocked themselves, the user who has seen the excerpts and thumbnails in the search results and then obtained an RC when clicking on them should be enlightened.
In conclusion, Google.com is a Search Engine that is:
1- Exactly as good quality as Google.cn (identical index)
2- Without the manipulation of Google.cn
3- AND much less censored than Google.cn
And the only reason why Chinese don’t use it is that Google.cn sounds more Chinese to them, and they just don’t care enough. Most probably the disappearance of G.cn will push the present G.cn users to switch to G.com, and the outcome will be increased freedom in the Chinese internet.
It is obvious that, if Google manages to keep Google.com and eliminate Google.cn, and in the process convince the CCP that it has already suffered the deserved punishment (for Google it DOES matter to lose G.cn, it is a source of revenue) then all will have ended well. That was probably not the initial intention of Google’s move, but it is a possible outcome.
On the other hand, some commenters are already saying that I am too optimistic, and that the CCP will quickly come to the same conclusion I have come and block Google.com. The good news is that EVEN if they do block Google.com, the situation may still be better than today. The Chinese Google users will start to miss the G, and they will start to use web proxies to access Google.com, expanding their use and making the Chinese net population more conscious of the GFW and of the ways to cross it.
And I think with this I have said all I had to say about Google and China. I am planning to write about other things for a while, at least until important, first hand news come out. In the meantime, you can ask questions or raise objections in the comments below, and I will try to help.
*NOTES AND CLARIFICATIONS:
1- If you are outside mainland China probably the experiments will not work, because Google.com is tailored to your own country. There are web proxies hosted in the mainland that you can use to trick Google into thinking you are in China. I don’t remember any now, if anyone knows please comment below.
2- People have asked me about Bing and Yahoo’s SEM policies. A very quick test shows that in principle Yahoo.cn/com is similar to G.cn /.com, while Bing only has one version here, and it looks SEMed, but I’m not sure. In any case those sites are way behind Google in China.
3- Many tech-savvy Chinese obviously DO know that Google.com is not SEM manipulated. And no, I am not implying here that most Chinese are stupid. I am just saying that most of them don’t give a damn if they search for Hu Jintao and the only answer they get is the People’s Daily bio. There is just no notion of the advantages of diversity of information, something that the CCP is not very good at promoting.