For virtually as long as the Internet has existed, search engines have made an otherwise impossible task of finding content not only possible, but efficient. Search engines from Yahoo to Google scour the 'Net, returning tens of millions of results a day, with some early search "bots" going back over a quarter century.
As the Internet expanded, so too did international use and as international use expanded, governments with stricter policies on online content sought ways to limit the free distribution of online information. Most visible of the tensions between State and Internet search engine was that between the Chinese government and the world's largest search engine, Google.
For some years Google agreed to work within Chinese strictures on the Internet content Google searches returned to Chinese Internet users. In January of 2006, Google announced that it intended to filter certain keywords in order to agree with Chinese government restrictions. By 2009, Google also informed Internet users that certain of their keywords had been blocked or hidden, all in response to official pressure.
Such online censorship naturally raised protests within China and the United States. Tensions escalated and in mid 2009, Google was instructed to block whole websites and was officially criticized for not filtering a "“huge amount of porn and lewd content”.
Finally, in January of this year, Google announced their intention to stop censoring Chinese search results altogether, acknowledging that such action may result in Google being closed in China. The decision seems to have had an almost predictable effect.
From Google's blog:
Like many other well-known organizations, we face cyber attacks of varying degrees on a regular basis. In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. However, it soon became clear that what at first appeared to be solely a security incident--albeit a significant one--was something quite different.
First, this attack was not just on Google. As part of our investigation we have discovered that at least twenty other large companies from a wide range of businesses--including the Internet, finance, technology, media and chemical sectors--have been similarly targeted. We are currently in the process of notifying those companies, and we are also working with the relevant U.S. authorities.
Second, we have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.
The state of affairs surrounding Google in China are important to Internet users in China, a country with intense official pressure on virtually all walks of life to conform to a myriad of state-mandated policy. Teachers abroad in China are among those hard hit by any constriction of online rights. Is there an alternative to China's policies on Internet content?
The San Francisco Chronicle reports:
Google would have much preferred to compete in China with a Chinese-language version of its search service operating from servers and offices located safely beyond China's borders (and, in fact, Google built such a site). But Google didn't have that choice because China's firewall effectively prevented it. When not actually blocking access to offshore Web sites that censors deem objectionable, the firewall degrades the performance of Web sites based outside the country. [...]
Google's commendable announcement that it will no longer censor Google.cn, and its threat to quit the China market, have caught Chinese government authorities by surprise, creating an opportunity to apply pressure in a way that could enhance individual liberty for millions of Chinese citizens.
At this time the state of Internet use in China appears to have a reached a standoff between freedom of speech and official policy. Given China's explosive growth into so many walks of western-style life, including access to information and expression, the resolution to this crisis, while probably not immediate and certainly not easily predicted, will be critical for the continued progress of the Chinese as they evolve and expand into new global prominence.