Google has just announced that it will stop censoring search results in China and will instead redirect mainland Chinese web visitors to an uncensored version of the site based in Hong Kong. China may block access to the Hong Kong site as its next move.

In announcing its decision to stop censoring search results, Google didn't argue that censorship was intolerable, but said that the situation was getting worse: a wave of hacking attacks against companies including Google, evidence that the Gmail accounts of human rights activists had been compromised and the government's shutting off access to YouTube, Blogger, Twitter and Facebook. What comes next?

Committee to Protect Journalists: "We welcome this stand against censorship and hope that all Internet companies operating in China take a similar principled position... In the long run, however, we hope that [Google] ramps up pressure on the Chinese government to allow its citizens to access the news and information they need to be informed and engaged citizens."
One future scenario that could unfold is that China could block access for its citizens to the Google Hong Kong site and Google could call on the US government for assistance. The US government may or may not be interested in intervening.

Google might also determine that it did the best it could: that its hands are now clean, that Chinese citizens who wanted to could access the Hong Kong site by proxy and that there is probably limited interest in Google inside China anyway. (Though Google is believed to control 30% marketshare of search in China, the company has said its revenues there are "immaterial.")

Finally, Google could make this move in anticipation of political pressure to do something about censorship around the world. Senate Democrats have said they will soon introduce proposed legislation that will "require Internet companies to take reasonable steps to protect human rights, or face civil and criminal liability."

Different companies are liable to have different reactions to such political pressure. Facebook told a Senate committee it is still too small to decide how to deal with international questions of censorship yet!

Human Rights Watch: "This is a crucial moment for freedom of expression in China, and the onus is now on other major technology companies to take a firm stand against censorship."
Google may well have made this latest move in order to spare itself from an impending wave of political pressure later.

Or maybe Google just did the morally right thing to do today. It's hard to consider that the most likely explanation though when it wasn't the censorship that was the last straw, it was the hacking attacks, the Gmail break-ins and the lack of access to a variety of sites.

What do you think this means? What do you think will happen next? Stay tuned for what's sure to be an interesting, unfolding story.

See Also: ReadWriteWeb's interview last week with Chinese digital activist Wei Wei.