Google Has Some Growing Up to Do

Beijing will undoubtedly pull the plug on Google's Hong Kong workaround any day now. Tuesday's outage was just a warning shot.

Anders Bylund
Anders Bylund
Mar 31, 2010 at 12:00AM

As big and mature as Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) is these days, the company still doesn't seem prepared for grown-up issues like international politics.

After backing out of China with a middle finger jauntily extended to Beijing, the company should have expected some fallout from the bold but stupid move to redirect Chinese search traffic to an unfiltered version of the service in Hong Kong. Sure enough, Chinese users saw their searches fall flat on Tuesday. And Google couldn't even make up its mind about the reason why.

At first, Google took the standoffish position that a recent change to the Hong Kong search site inadvertently tagged every search with an acronym that could be interpreted as Radio Free Asia, an uncensored news organization that has been on the Chinese filter list for ages. Under that theory, it made sense that the searches wouldn't make it past the Great Chinese Firewall.

But the company soon turned 180 degrees, noting that the RFA change is actually getting old and Chinese searches worked on Monday. Google's appointed Captain Obvious then announced that, "whatever happened [Tuesday] to block must have been as a result of a change in the Great Firewall." In other shocking news, kittens are cute and Iraq needs help.

The Chinese standoff might not be too costly for Google, and it could even do some good. Traffic started flowing again later on Tuesday, so one might surmise that Beijing softened its actions in the face of a global media blitz. Maybe. Google really had no other choice than to withdraw, though it could have been done in a more thoughtful fashion.

In a perfect world, you'd see other American businesses with an interest in free speech follow Google's example, including obvious search rivals Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO) and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT), but also businesses with a more physical, less virtual presence in the Middle Kingdom such as IBM (NYSE: IBM) and Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL). But search competitors seem to take Google's retreat as an opportunity to steal market share, and don't hold your breath if you think that Apple would abandon its Chinese manufacturing base on the eve of the iPad launch.

Google's stand is admirably principled, yet blue-eyed and immature. The company really should have seen some fallout coming, and there's no reason to be surprised when the Great Firewall closes Google's Chinese searches down for good. When, not if.

How long will last? Let the theories fly in the comments below.