Not another brick in the wall

After threatening to pull out of the People’s Republic following hacks on its systems, internet search giant Google is likely to make good on its warning and is preparing to shutdown its operations in China according to an insider at the company who spoke to the Wall Street Journal last week.

Google Search is one of the last major international internet services accessible in China after the government in that country banned Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and several other sites in 2009, making them inaccessible to local internet users.

Google begrudgingly agreed to play ball with the great firewall of China in order to officially operate in the country, but after some of its users’ accounts were hacked – apparently from within China – Google said it had had enough and would pull out of the country if internet filtering was not relaxed.

I travelled to Beijing last year as a guest of Lenovo and got to experience the Great Firewall firsthand. It was eery not being able to access Twitter or Facebook, but I soon found ways around this. One method was to use SSH tunneling and apparently VPN access works well too – some companies are even making money out of selling this kind of access to internet users in China.

Another less obvious method was to use the browser on an Amazon Kindle. The Kindle connects wirelessly to cellular networks around the world thanks to roaming agreements with AT&T – Amazon’s network partner. Using the Kindle Browser I could hit Twitter, Facebook and other banned sites. The Kindle experimental browser is terrible – but it worked. And it’s free.

Obviously there are ethical issues with content filtering and I don’t believe governments have any right to apply such controls, but the reality of internet usage in China is that the filtering isn’t a big deal for users. I’m reminded, again, of infamous libertarian and computer scientist John Gilmore’s quote – “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

Google will still be accessible from China, but will not have a dedicated Chinese service, which is the gist of this latest news. This will provide new incentive for the Chinese to provide their own services, just as they have come up with their own alternatives to Twitter and Facebook.

I live in a country with problems-a-plenty, but at least freedom of speech and censorship laws are progressive and protected by the constitution.

I'm a writer and broadcaster who also designs apps and strategies for disruptive startups in the financial world. Find out more on my about page.