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.
All tests in Chinese, English spelling is on purpose. The anomaly in the chinayouren string proves that in some rare cases G.cn does give better results that G.com, as SEM does not apply to petty disharmony. Click to continue »