Certainly, Google's latest move in China is not in its short- or even medium-term commercial interest, any more than the 2010 decision to move its search engine operations out of China was good for market share. It makes much more sense, however, in the context of the company's broader global strategy. Over the past two years, Google has taken a wide range of very public steps to align its global brand image with the cause of free expression. It has been vocal in speaking out against government censorship of the Internet all over the world, most recently in Thailand, where it criticized the country's harsh lèse majesté laws. It is fighting government censorship demands in India. It is a founding member of the Global Network Initiative, through which Internet companies work to uphold human rights principles. It issues a Transparency Report documenting censorship and user information demands from governments around the world (including the United States). It recently convened a major conference called Internet @ Liberty, to which activists were flown in from around the world to "explore the most pressing dilemmas and exciting opportunities around free expression in the digital age."
Just this week, Vint Cerf, Google's "chief evangelist" and one of the creators of the Internet, testified in Congress about proposals by China, India, Russia, and other states to put the web more firmly under the control of governments through auspices of the United Nations. The point is not that Google has no serious problems -- it certainly does, particularly on privacy and data collection issues. The point is that when viewed in the context of Google's global activities and statements, its decision to expose the Great Firewall looks very consistent with its image as an opponent of censorship and supporter of free speech.
But will China care? Writing on Twitter after news of Google's Firewall Exposé began to circulate after midnight Friday Beijing time, Chinese blogger Michael Anti commented in Chinese: "this will cause another headache for the Chinese government." It is unclear how Beijing will choose to react, or whether the Hong Kong-based search service will now be blocked outright on the mainland. Close observers of China's censorship strategies think this is a possibility, but only if the number of Chinese Google search users has dwindled to the point that the country's business elites would not complain. Otherwise, "blocking it completely could cause a lot of complaints and would make the censorship even more obvious," says Martin Johnson, the Beijing-based co-creator of Greatfire.org, a website that monitors Internet censorship from within China.
Johnson, who uses a pseudonym for fear of reprisals from the Chinese government, believes Beijing's current strategy is to block new Google services as soon as they become available, well before they develop any meaningful Chinese following. For example, the only reason why GMail remains unblocked in China (although it is sometimes disrupted) is because too many business and government elites have come to depend on it to communicate with friends, family, and colleagues around the world. "They don't want to repeat the GMail mistake -- waiting too long to block it, giving the service so many users that they don't dare block it anymore," he says.
But even if the government successfully blocked search, hundreds of millions of Chinese would remain dependent on another Google product: the Android mobile operating system. While Google no longer has a search engine operation inside China, it has maintained a large presence in Beijing and Shanghai focused on research and development, advertising sales, and mobile platform development. Chinese mobile companies have become so dependent on Android that in approving Google's acquisition of Motorola, which has a large manufacturing and sales presence in China, the Chinese government stipulated that Google must keep the operating system free and open-source for the next five years.
Like it or not, Google and the Chinese government are stuck in a tense, long-term relationship, and can look forward to more high-stakes shadow-boxing in the netherworld of the world's most elaborate system of censorship.