Did it or didn’t it? News reports and online forums are buzzing with the news that Google.cn may have dropped its censorship wall. NBC news reported doing some sensitive searches on the mega search engine from China to test it. Among the items it Googled was the "Tiananmen Square massacre," which returned a fairly thorough list of results on the military crackdown—something the government doesn't normally allow.
MarketWatch has also picked up on the reports, but according to their piece, it looks like Google's China spokeswoman, Marsha Wang, said they are running their business as usual. Scott Rubin, a spokesperson for Google U.S., confirmed that much to me in an e-mail saying, "Google.cn is still operating within the law in China."
It's quite possible the search results don't mean what some news reports suggest they do. Nart Villeneuve, a well-known cyber guru, makes a very good case for that here. Still, it's a big coincidence, given the tense relationship between Google and China ever since the hacking incident broke in January.
The folks from herdict.org, which tracks Web accessibility around the world, say they’ve definitely gotten reports from users in China that Google.cn did turn off at least some filters as early as March 4. "On [highly censored] topics like Falun Gong, the search results that come up on Google.com and Google.cn are the same or very similar now," says Jillian York, user outreach coordinator. (Keep in mind that just because something comes up in search results doesn't mean the actual site is not still blocked by China.)
At least one thing is certain; the Chinese are already balking at the idea that Google might ignore its censorship rules. Last week, the Chinese government warned Google, once again, that it will not budge on this matter. For Google to play on their playground, it has to follow their rules. At a news conference on Friday, Chinese minister for industry and information technology, Li Yizhong, said, “If [Google] takes steps that violate Chinese laws, that would be unfriendly, that would be irresponsible, and they would have to bear the consequences.”
Google may not stick around that long. According to a Financial Times report this week, "Google has drawn up detailed plans for the closure of its Chinese search engine and is now '99.9 percent' certain to go ahead as talks over censorship with the Chinese authorities have reached an apparent impasse."
Regardless, it probably won't be too long before someone has to make a definitive and public move on this. Chinese law requires that all Internet companies working in China's cyberspace renew their Internet service licenses in March. Reports suggest Google has not done so yet. If there's actually a solution both parties can agree on, kind of makes you wonder what they're waiting for.