Google has ceased operations (or a portion of their operations) in a number of external countries over the course of the past month, including China, Spain, and Russia. The pullouts, though individual and motivated by separate pressures, form an intriguing pattern of international relations for the company.
Google’s China domain, once Google.cn, now officially redirects to Google.com.hk, calling itself the “new home” of Google China. For a number of years, Google complied with Chinese requests to censor and alter its search results for the Chinese population (such as restricting information about the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests), but this recent switch means that Google is no longer willing to comply with those stipulations. Uncensored results for searches can now be found on Google.com.hk, though whether or not the Chinese population can access that domain is still controlled by the Chinese government.
Renegotiations stretch as far back as January of 2014, when Google and the Chinese government began discussing the state of Chinese censorship and Google’s future in the country. Google’s official statement on the matter revealed that a cyber-attack from China was the first domino in a chain of incidents that led the search engine giant to discontinue services such as Google Search, News, and Images in China. Services are still being provided on Hong Kong servers.
Google is refusing to further compromise their search results due to foreign governmental requests. It was not motivated by external pressure or as a punitive move—instead, it was a logical decision that Google believed would work out the best for the greatest number of people.
In a somewhat differently motivated move, Google is officially putting a halt to its News service in Spain. Earlier in 2014, Spain implemented a new amendment to its copyright law to take place in 2015—though frequently defended to be a move against piracy, the amendment earned the colloquial name “the Google tax.” Under this amendment, the writers of journalistic articles would be entitled to monetary compensation for segment-based views of their work on news aggregation sites, such as Google News. Further complicating the amendment, this right is inalienable, meaning that writers and publishers cannot waive their rights under any circumstances.
In response to this upcoming legislation, Google formally announced that it is ceasing Google News provision in Spain entirely. Pulling an Internet-based service out of one specific country is, of course, challenging—while users will no longer be able to access Google News at “news.google.es” as they have in the past, they’ll easily be able to access the Google News pages of other countries. Since Spanish users will still be able to access this “snippet” content, Google may still be held liable under the new legislation—so 2015 will be an interesting year for the future of Google in Spain (and Europe as a whole, considering other European countries may soon pass similar legislation).
Rather than making an independent decision in this case, Google is simply responding to an external threat. While Spain’s amendment is not specifically targeted toward Google, Google stands to lose much from the new proposal, and felt the need to mitigate or prevent those losses.
Following its decision to pull Google News out of Spain, Google reported that as of January 1, it will be closing its engineering offices in Russia. This comes as a result of the Russian Parliament passing a new bill that mandates all foreign Internet companies store the data of Russian citizens within Russian borders—beginning in 2016. While Parliament claims the bill’s intent is to protect Russian users’ information, and prevent foreign espionage from gaining them, most critics believe it is simply a move designed to restrict the availability and flow of information. Though other Google services will still be made available to Russian citizens, Google will not comply with the Russian law.
The motivation behind this decision is similar to the ones driving its decision in both Spain and China. The Spain pullout was motivated by new legislation, the China pullout was motivated by a desire to protect the availability of information, and the Russia pullout was motivated by new legislation designed to restrict information.
While these pullouts have all occurred in the month of December, Google’s international woes stretch back to May 2014, when the “right to be forgotten” privacy ruling by the European Union first started making headlines. Under the new EU decision, private citizens are able to make requests to major Internet-based providers like Google that certain links to information about themselves be removed from databases. Unless a compelling case can be made that the information is necessary for public interest, the links must be removed.
This new decision put much pressure on Google, with over 169,000 links being removed. Though some have argued the decision is a positive move forward for privacy rights, it also forces some factual, information-based links to be removed from public availability. Since Google is a major proponent for absolute information availability, the decision came as a harsh blow.
Furthering the tensions between Google and the EU, European Parliament has also been implementing an antitrust investigation to determine whether Google, as a company, constitutes a monopoly on the Internet search industry. While there are clearly other search competitors around such as Bing and Yahoo!, Google is the dominant competitor. Should the EU get its way, it will demand that Google be broken up into separate, distinct companies.
Such a decision would put enormous pressure on Google, though Google could likely find a way around such an eventuality.
It’s unclear what the future holds in store for Google, but there are two major threats working against Google’s traditional international operations. First, secretive countries like Russia and China are making harsh demands about information availability to their respective populations, and Google wants to maintain open channels. Second, European countries are on a crusade to protect private user information and weaken the perceived monopolistic Google, and Google wants to maintain its independence and continue making information indiscriminately publicly available.
Aside from Google’s desire to remain a singular, powerful business entity, the core root of all these pullouts and tensions is Google’s wish to keep information publicly and widely available. The search engine giant will undoubtedly face increased pressure in 2015 on all fronts, and it will be interesting to see how they respond.