Google's Chinese acrobatics and Net neutrality

Google's new plan to do business in China without censoring search results shows why Net neutrality is essential

Six months after declaring it would no longer tolerate censorship of its Chinese search engine, Google is still trying to have its Peking Duck and eat it too.

In March, Google began redirecting visitors to government-censored Google.cn to its uncensored Hong Kong site, Google.com.hk. Google fans in China could get unfiltered results from the Hong Kong site, but they still couldn't access any sites Beijing didn't want them to see. In other words, Google was telling its Chinese customers its government was censoring the Internet. I'm sure that came as a big shock to everyone.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Google's Wi-Fi spygate is its BP moment, Cringely points out. | Stay up to date on all Robert X. Cringely's observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

Yesterday Google announced via a blog post by Chief Legal Beagle Dave Drummond an even more obtuse method of doing business in China. Now when mainland Googlers dial up Google.cn, they get Google.cn. But as soon as they try to run a search, the site redirects them to Google.com.hk.

Why all the HTTP acrobatics?

It turns out Google's license to do business in China is up for renewal, and given Google's public defiance the Chinese are disinclined to renew it -- especially if Google.cn doesn't really exist. And Google has music and translation services hosted via Google.cn it wants people to use. So Google is hoping this "false front" allows China to save face (especially in light of an upcoming U.S. visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao later this year), while allowing Google to continue to do business in China until a) the shackles of Net oppression are finally lifted, or b) it makes another few billion in ad revenue inside the Great Firewall.

What does this have to do with us? I keep thinking about what happens when one powerful entity exercises monolithic control over the Internet. In China, it's the government. Over on this side of the Pacific, that would translate into the big broadband ISPs. Yes, I'm talking about Net neutrality again.

Given the opportunity, would a big ISP like Comcast or Charter or AT&T exercise Chinese-like control over Net content? Yes, I think they would. Not necessarily from a political agenda; they'd just offer better quality of service for bits with the most dollar signs attached to them -- whether their own content or that of business partners.

Don't believe it? Cringester J.Q. recently shared part of a survey Cox Communications sent him about possible services. Here's one of the questions Cox posed:

cox speed questionnaire-500p.jpg

In case that screenshot isn't easily legible, it asks Cox users if they'd like to have their Internet speed "automatically doubled when downloading videos, movies, games, and other content located on the Cox website as well as select Cox partner websites."

Sure sounds like Cox is thinking about throttling down the rest of the Net to give its own content a big advantage. They couldn't be alone in that.

Big ISPs need to be able to manage their traffic, that's a given. Bandwidth hogs should not be given a free ride. But we all need to be aware of what damage giving unfettered control to ISPs can do. The last thing we need is for a dozen little Chinas to bloom.

OK, have at it. What do you think about China and net neutrality? Post your thoughts below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com. I'll gather up the best responses and let y'all duke it out in a future post.

This story, "Google's Chinese acrobatics and net neutrality," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog.

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