Though no one seems to know how the Google vs. China saga will unfold, all signs indicate Google's exit is imminent. That could be bad news for internet freedom efforts in the country, as Google seems to be one of the few companies willing to shake things up in China.Back in January, after a number of "cyberattacks" on their email service Gmail, Google wrote on their official blog that the "primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists," and that Google had also "discovered that the accounts of dozens of U.S.-, China- and Europe-based Gmail users who are advocates of human rights in China appear to have been routinely accessed by third parties." Google responded to the attacks by threatening to stop the "self-censoring which was a condition of their operating within China."

In recent weeks, Chinese officials have warned Google that the company must abide by the laws it agreed to follow when it entered the country, even if it decides to alter its relationship with China. Commerce Ministry spokesperson Yao Jian said that even if Google pulls out, "it should handle things according to the rules and appropriately handle remaining issues," and minister of industry and information technology Li Yizhong warned the company that "if you want to do something that disobeys Chinese law and regulations, you are unfriendly, you are irresponsible and you will have to bear the consequences."

But already there are reports that Google may be making trouble: on Wednesday MSNBC reported" that the search engine was bringing up previously censored results for searches such as "Xinjiang independence," "Tibet Information Network," and "Tiananmen Square massacre." Though it could be just a coincidence that the results are coming up at this tense time, Newsweek's Techtonic Shifts blog makes the point that it's nevertheless "a big coincidence."

The fact of the matter is that if Google does leave China, there are Chinese companies that will take up the search engine slack--Google does not dominate the search engine market in China the way it does in the U.S., with local companies such as Baidu already leading the field. But obviously, Chinese companies are in a much weaker position to challenge official censorship rules.

As far as Western companies go, Microsoft, whose Bing search engine stands to gain if Google leaves China, has been "far more obliging to the government's censorship demands," even going so far as to take Google to task for squabbling with Chinese officials over censorship: in an interview with China Daily published today, Microsoft research and strategy officer Craig Mundie pointedly stated that "people in the management who are not familiar with China might make an assumption that the business they operate in other countries will naturally be transferable here. But in most cases that is not true." While Chinese citizens obviously aren't waiting for a Western corporation to bring them internet freedom, apparently they certainly shouldn't expect any help from Bing.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, user Xhacker.