Google in China: The strange things that get banned on the ‘Great Firewall’, including Peppa Pig and the letter N

Censorship in China is widespread and sometimes strange

Andrew Griffin
Thursday 02 August 2018 15:54 BST
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Google's fans light the candles on the Google logo at its China headquarters building on March 23, 2010 in Beijing
Google's fans light the candles on the Google logo at its China headquarters building on March 23, 2010 in Beijing

Google may be developing a special version of its search engine that would allow certain information to disappear in China. This would not be the first time a company has done so – and it would not be the first time Google has done so.

The decision has turned fresh attention to China's internet censorship regime, so wide-ranging that it has been labelled the "Great Firewall" and so powerful that it has allowed the government to ban people from using a single letter.

The suggestion that China could be partnering with the company, has been attacked by human rights campaigners and others, who suggested that Google relenting on censorship would be a "dark day", in the words of Amnesty International. Google would follow a whole host of companies, including LinkedIn, that already censor their users at the price of operating in China.

The special version, according to the accounts of those who have seen initial prototype, would work like the normal version of Google but cut out any problematic words or websites. Wikipedia would be inaccessible, for instance, with a little note making clear that some sites have been banned being visible in its place.

Google left the country in 2010, in protest to the censorship that the Chinese government demanded from it. That censorship is still in place – and growing.

But China's importance as a market for tech companies is growing too. That has put pressure on companies such as Google and its competitors, who face calls from shareholders to avoid giving up on revenue but want to ensure that the freedom of information is protected.

The vast and powerful sweep of China's internet censorship is probably best demonstrated in its more farcical and confusing moments. This year, for instance, the country entirely banned the use of the letter "N" from the internet.

It was a decision that prompted mockery and some confusion. But it showed how much power the government can have on discussion on the internet: it was banned because it was being used to talk about the term limits of Chinese president, in debating a plan to give Xi Jinping the power to rule the country indefinitely.

And even apparently innocent things can be eradicated from the internet. This year, Peppa Pig followed Winnie The Pooh in being banned in China, with videos being removed and discussions of the words all censored.

Being a tech company in China involves assenting to that kind of blocking, often leading posts to disappear entirely. LinkedIn participates in such censorship, for instance, while Facebook has been reported to be working on a tool that would allow it to automatically suppress certain problematic posts.

But the history of censorship in China will also serve as a warning to Google: even companies that acquiesce to Beijing and apply its restrictions, do not always succeed in getting into the country. Facebook, for instance, last month appeared to have finally won the right to operate in the country – and then had it promptly withdrawn.

That illustrated not just the power of the Great Firewall but the more traditional problems involved in running a technology company in China. Even if a company is happy to censor its users, it can be difficult for them to work out how exactly they are supposed to do so – the country is run by a decentralised government that operates at everything from a very local to a huge national level, and an intergovernmental dispute can be enough to knock even a pliable tech company out.

Rather than becoming involved in such problems, Google's reach into China has mostly extended to less problematic products, and those that it does not owned. It offers a version of Google Translate in the country, for instance, and it made a $550 million investment into Chinese online shopping company JD.com.

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