This week, Google made good on a pledge made earlier this year to stop censoring search results in China.
On March 22, the search giant published a blog post informing users that visitors to Google.cn would be redirected to its uncensored Hong Kong search engine. Search results would still likely be firewalled, but the censorship would be at the hands of the Chinese government, rather than Google.
The move taps into Google's “don't be evil” position, which some feared the technology company had veered away from as a public company, especially as the giant has increasingly grappled with privacy and anti-trust complaints.
“It's a brilliant chess move,” says Eric Villines, SVP and GM of MWW Group's Northern-Pacific operations. “They don't have to be the bad guys. They're in Hong Kong providing uncensored service. And they smell like roses.”
Bob Finlayson, a tech PR consultant, says the move smartly recaptures the spirit of the days when Google was a scrappy company taking on corporate behemoths.
“Google has always portrayed itself as a good company and, in the last couple of years, that portion of their brand has been tarnished because as you get bigger people start to question that,” Finlayson says. “Now they are up against someone bigger than them — the Chinese government — who everyone thinks is in the wrong here. It's very good for their brand.”
Gabriel Stricker, director of global communications and public affairs at Google, maintains that the search giant has always communicated its principled stance and the change in China is just the latest example.
“You have to go back to our IPO,” says Stricker, referring to Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. “Larry and Sergey said this is a different kind of company, run in a different way, and there are a handful of principles that we will stand for and if folks aren't comfortable with that they shouldn't be investors.”
Communications, which was handled in-house, used the company's official blog, as well as Twitter, to share the news and provide updates.
“It was literally updating people on how it is that we were following through on the promise that we made in January,” says Stricker.
Despite the accolades Google is getting for the move, there are still pitfalls ahead for the search giant as it is now one of the most notable companies to stand up to China.
Tony Hynes, West Coast GM at Bite Communications, says this is “a good move” for the search giant but adds that “a bit more modesty” around the issue might help Google's brand in the long-term. Hynes suggests Google use organizations vested in uncensored Web content to do the company's posturing and to call out companies still complying with censorship in China.
“It would be better for them to use those channels rather than going out and posturing and being a bit brash about it,” Hynes says.
Earlier this week, Brin criticized companies, in particular competitor Microsoft, for acquiescing to the Chinese government. The criticism opens Google up to scrutiny since the company itself faced criticism in 2006 when it gingerly entered the Chinese market.
Microsoft declined to comment for this story.
While the media has focused on the January hacking incident targeting human rights activists in China as the reason the search giant pulled out of China, Google has been considering the move before then, says Stricker.
“The role communications played in January versus earlier this week was different,” Stricker says. “The role it played in January, in large part was [explaining] this episode where specific people – Chinese human rights advocates – had been attacked. And the only way we could reach that group of people was by publicizing it far and wide.”He adds that Google isn't looking to define its brand around the events of the past week, saying, “We want to be evaluated on the merit of our innovations, as much as these kinds of things.”