Even as Google's executive chairman, Eric Schmidt continues with his controversial visit to totalitarian North Korea, presumably in an attempt to drum up a wee bit more business for his unassuming company, over in neighbouring China Google has quietly removed a feature that notified its users in the People's Republic when they were about to activate content blocking and draw themselves to the attention of vengeful and punitive authority. By Martyn Warwick.
But then we should be getting used to the "do no evil' one's hypocrisy by now. Last Spring, as is its wont whenever it wants to promote itself, Google fluffed up its feathers and crowed to the heavens that it was taking a principled stand against censorship in China.
This consisted of introducing a system whereby Chinese web users were notified when their browsing was taking them close to triggering the blocking of content by the state. it was based on keywords that are known to cause the Great Firewall of China secretly to impose itself between a user and access to the content for which he or she is searching.
In a web posting at the time, Google said it's latest "improvement of the search experience" for Chinese users would alert them if a particular keyword or keywords would cause a cut in connection and alert the censors. Users would then be able to continue to search for the same content via a bypass utility that would accept the search criteria in latin script format.
Google made much of its liberal pretensions and got a lot of sympathetic media coverage as a result of it's self-proclaimed determination to fight for the freedom of information and against state censorship.
Ah, but that was May 2012 and this is January 2013 - several eons in the Alice Through The Looking Glass environment that is Googleworld.
Over the run-up to Christmas and the New Year, Google simply removed the early warning system without bothering to tell anyone and the facility's disappearance was brought to light only when Greatfire.org, an organisation that monitors censorship in China, discovered and reported it.
What has happened is that Google, to curry favour with the powers that be in the PRC, has censored itself and, as any journalist will tell you, self-censorship is many time more insidious, destructive and cowardly than having it imposed by an outside power.
Now, you might wonder why this matters. After all, for many of us, China is a strange land far away of which we know little, and Google's share of the Chinese Internet access market is just over four per cent. But Google's ambition know no bounds and Bloomberg has reported that the Cookie Monster is trying to form a partnership with the Chinese website Qihoo 360 to challenge the dominance of the market leader, Baidu. That ambition, and the consequent need to 'please' the Chinese government may well have been the reason behind Google's sneaky removal of its anti web-blocking capability.
It can hardly be co-incidental that China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) has just published a forecast showing that the PRC's Internet user base will hit 800 million by 2015. It was 550 million in mid-2012.
Uptake is being driven by the mass popularity and usage of smartphones providing access to
mobile Internet services and applications. China already has more than billion mobile phone subscribers and many are opting to use data services. Google wants part of that and is willing to strap itself into its own gimp mask to get it.
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