Leaping the Great Firewall of China

Google's fans light the candles on the Google logo at its China headquarters building on March 23, 2010 in Beijing. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

By Emily Parker

Originally published on WSJ.com, March 24, 2010

Google rode into China four years ago on a wave of optimism about the Internet's power to spread information within closed societies.

At that time I was living in Hong Kong, where I had been writing about China and the Internet for this newspaper. I described online petitions, vibrant Web communities, and netizens' successful attempts to unearth news that authorities tried to block.

I believed that companies like Google would broaden the market for information. So when Google launched its Chinese site, Google.cn, I was uneasy about the company's decision to censor its search results to comply with Chinese law.

But Google eventually convinced me, along with other skeptics, that it had made the right calculation. "Our continued engagement with China is the best (perhaps only) way for Google to help bring the tremendous benefits of universal information access to all our users there," the company wrote in its 2006 announcement to launch Google.cn. "We're in this for the long haul."

Well, so much for that. Yesterday Google announced that it is so fed up with hacking, censorship, and China's overall business climate that it has closed down Google.cn. Mainland Chinese users are now redirected to Google's Hong Kong site, where "sensitive" information will no longer be blocked by Google.

China immediately denounced Google's "arrogance" and "pressure tactics." And it appears to already be employing the same Great Firewall of censorship against Google.com.hk as it does against Google.com. Over the short term at least, this is not exactly a victory for Internet freedom.

So what happens now? The good news is that American technology companies can still promote Internet freedom in China. Google tried to bring information to the Chinese people; now let's try bringing Chinese people to the information. In other words, U.S. companies can set up shop outside of China but make it as easy as possible for the Chinese to access their services. Call it Twitter diplomacy.

Twitter, though blocked by the Great Firewall, has a small but fiercely loyal following on the mainland. Chinese use it to break news, offer frank opinions, and find like-minded individuals. Artist and social activist Ai Weiwei recently referred to Twitter as "a ray of light" in "a very dark room."

The fact that Chinese can access this service has much to do with Twitter's design. Twitter has an open application programming interface, or API. Twitter's API allows people to post and retrieve tweets on sites other than Twitter. "Coders in China can still find wholesale access to twitter.com blocked," says Jonathan Zittrain, co-director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "The idea is that coders elsewhere get to Twitter, and offer up feeds at their own URLs—which the government has to chase down one by one."

The Twitter API is just one example of an innovative way a U.S. company can help Chinese netizens gain access to uncensored information. Western companies can also address the Great Firewall by developing safer and cheaper virtual private networks that allow Chinese to access the Web as if they were outside of China. What's important is that these are fundamentally technological approaches, not overtly political ones.

Some netizens are thrilled about Google's move. The Chinese twitterverse is alight with words like "justice" and "courageous" and "milestone."

But many Chinese also understand that the problem of censorship is not going away, and they need a more practical, long-term strategy to overcome it. More than one Chinese blogger expressed to me, with a sense of awe, that Google did what they could not. They were not simply referring to Google's confrontation with the Chinese government. They also meant that if things didn't go its way, the company could simply turn and walk out the door.

Emily Parker, a senior fellow at Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, is writing a book about democracy and the Internet.