Google Blogoscoped

Friday, March 2, 2007

Google Censorship FAQ

Does Google censor search results?
Yes, they sometimes do, in different countries, like Germany, France or China. Sometimes, specific content is censored globally (including US results, e.g. in the case of certain censored newsgroup messages).

Do other search engines censor too?
Yes, Yahoo, MSN and others censor search results in different countries.

What’s search results censorship?
For the scope of this FAQ I’ll define censorship as missing results which are filtered for reasons of politics or regulations, not because they’re spam, non-family friendly, or copyright-infringements (though your mileage may vary).

Can we be sure it’s censorship, don’t localized search engines always show different results?
Because Google mostly discloses their censorship, we can differentiate between normal differences among local engines, and differences due to censorship. Using the “site:” operator appended with a domain we suspect to be censored in a local search engine, we can verify specific missing sites.

What other forms of filtering are there in Google results?
Google also sometimes removes sites if they are infringing on copyright (someone can send a DMCA – Digital Millennium Copyright Act – complaint to Google), or infringing on Google’s webmaster guidelines (e.g. if a site includes hidden keywords visible only to the searchbot, but not users). If you have Google’s SafeSearch enabled, Google may also not show certain sites containing adult content (note that in some countries, the user cannot toggle a SafeSearch option in the preferences). Additionally, Google may show up warning pages before delivering certain content, which happens on YouTube or Blogspot blogs. Also, Google does usually not allow explicit adult content on any of the hosting solutions they provide (e.g. YouTube, Blogger). And then, Google sometimes removes adult content from its Google Zeitgeist report as well as its Google Suggest feature.

What does Google censor?
It depends on the country. In Germany, Google censors certain Nazi websites like, for example. In the US, Google censors sites containing child pornography, Google’s Sergey Brin stated. In China, Google also censors human rights groups, like (Human Rights Watch), but many other things as well, like “台独” (Taiwan independence), names of current and past presidents, names of locations, historical events and so on. Due to the broad scope of Google China censorship, the list of queries hitting on censored results is huge, and often unrelated to sensitive issues (except that the censored sites appear in the results).

How many web pages does Google censor?
Google knows, but they won’t tell you. The figure might be somewhere inbetween millions to hundreds of millions of web pages. Using the “site:” operator, you can do some comparisons; e.g. a search for returns 0 pages, whereas a search for the same returns a page count of around 2,250,000, meaning there may be over two million pages missing on BBC alone (note that Google’s page count estimator is only a rough value, and it often differs in localized results for other reasons than censorship; still, this methodology gives some good first indicators as to the amount of missing pages).

Does Google censor less than other Chinese search engines, or more?
This is hard to measure and partly depends on the search queries you will try. In general, Google was the last to commit to Chinese censorship requests, and they’re fairly consistent in disclosing censorship. However, other search engines sometimes show more than Google when it comes to “sensitive” terms, e.g. returns many image results for “胡锦涛” (China’s president Hu Jintao) whereas doesn’t show a single image for this query. [Update: Google now shows images for this query.]

Did the Chinese have search engines before Google entered with
Yes, whether or not Google is in the market, Chinese had and have a variety of search engines to choose from.

In which of its different search services does Google censor?
There’s censorship to be found in different Google services, including Google web search, Google image search, Google News, Google Groups (Google’s Usenet discussion group search), and Google Maps (e.g. on request of the Indian or US government). Google also sometimes removes content from Blogspot or YouTube for different reasons, with the difference here being that Google acts as host, not just a messenger of other people’s content.

Does Google disclose the censorship?
Google prints a disclaimer at the end of search results in most cases, though this wasn’t always the case before early 2006. The disclaimer may read “In response to a legal request submitted to Google, we have removed N result(s) from this page. If you wish, you may read more about the request at,” or “In response to a legal complaint we received, we have removed one or more messages. If you wish, you may read the legal complaint,” or (a translation from Chinese) “In compliance with local laws and policies, some search results are not showing.”

Do other Chinese search engines disclose censorship too?
Yes. For example, MSN shows a “Some of the results have been removed” disclaimer in China when search results are censored. Yahoo does not (or not always) disclose censorship, though they did at one time with the message “We have already helped you filter out excess web pages” oir “according to relevant laws and regulations, a portion of results may not appear,” according to reports from Human Rights Watch.

Is Google’s disclosure easily visible?
Google decided to put the censorship disclosure at the end of search results (not at the top), a place where many, but not all people, will see it (some people just look at the top results). But clearly if you look out for you can easily find it.

Is Google transparent about their censorship?
Google discloses what they censor when you hit on a specific search result (they didn’t always do this, but they regularly do since 2006). However, Google Inc does not respond to questions regarding how specifically they censor, how the process of censorship is implemented, which blacklists they use, which words are censored, which specific discussions they have with governments, and so on. Google also ignores issues of censorship in their official Chinese blog (according to Human Rights Watch), and in the censorship defense statement made in their official English blog, they do not mention the word “censorship” at all.

Since when does Google censor results?
This is hard to tell. Personally I’ve spotted censorship way back in 2003, but it’s likely it’s going on longer than this. In China, Google self-censors since January 2006. (According to Google employee Matt Cutts, via Search Engine Roundtable, one of the first DMCA removal/ counter-notification processes against an anti-Scientology site was implemented in 2002.)

How did Google justify their China self-censorship?
In general, Google says that it’s their “policy not to censor search results. However, in response to local laws, regulations, or policies, we may do so.” In regards to China, Google argued that filtering their results clearly compromises their mission, but that failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world’s population compromises their mission more severely.

Others, like Bill Gates (according to Times Online), supported Google’s position by arguing that state censorship is “no reason for technology companies not to do business in China”, adding that “access to the outside world is preventing more censorship.”

Did Google fail to offer Google search at all before the self-censored
Not really. Almost always, next to about a couple of times of a complete shut-down courtesy of the Chinese government (shut-downs that were removed due to user protest, as Sergey Brin stated in an interview with Playboy), Chinese users had access to and the Chinese Google search engine available at However, according to Google’s figure, was only accessible from China in 90% of all cases. Additionally, according to Google’s Sergey Brin (via CNN), some universities weren’t able to afford the international bandwidth costs necessary to pay for

Has it become easier now for the Chinese government to block
Some argue that this is the case, because a public outcry over a blocked is less likely when there is a censored alternative available.

How can I check if a Chinese result is censored?
Set your preferred browser language to Chinese (e.g. in Firefox, Tools -> Options -> Advanced -> Choose) and visit Alternatively, you can directly access At the bottom of censored search results, you will see the Chinese text “据当地法律法规和政策,部分搜索结果未予显示。” in italics.

How does Google censor?
From what little you can see from the outside, it seems Google censors based on domains, sub-domains, full URLs, or keywords. For example, all of the roughly 2.25 million pages of are censored in Google China web search, hinting at a URL blacklist. In Google image search China, the keywords “胡锦涛” (Chinese president Hu Jintao) or “六四” (colloquial Chinese for the Tiananmen Square Massacre) are fully censored, hinting at a keyword-blacklist.

Is search results censorship evil?
Whether or not results censoring is evil depends on who you ask. The two basic opposing opinions are:

  1. censoring may not be great but it’s the lesser of two evils
  2. censoring is evil so needs to be avoided at all circumstances

The proponents of censorship in the Chinese government for example may argue along the lines of 1), that censorship isn’t great but that free speech would lead to greater problems for such a large country where order needs to be provided. Google Inc also argues along the lines of 1), saying that censorship isn’t great but that not getting deeply involved in such a large country as a company leads to even greater problems in the long run. Others argue that 2), a principled approach – allow no evil at all – makes more sense in the long run. Sergey Brin once told CNN that he thinks “both kinds of viewpoints are perfectly valid.”

Is Google China censorship compliant with Google’s informal corporate motto, “don’t be evil"?
I’d argue no, because in order to enter China Google introduced a new philosophy of balancing evil scales. So the most optimistic interpretation is that they now accept smaller evils for a greater good – a more pessimistic interpretation is that this won’t even result in a greater good. However, neither of the two interpretations conforms to a strict “don’t be evil.”

Is Google China censorship good for Google’s business?
Only time will tell. According to The Guardian, Sergey Brin in 2007 admitted that so far, “On a business level, that decision to censor... was a net negative,” mostly due to the reputation which suffered from the public perception of Google’s move. (I’d argue that user trust is an important asset for businesses which handle user data, possibly even more so in the future.)

Does Google only censor what can’t be seen in that country anyway?
No. Sometimes Google censors sites that aren’t accessible anyway in a specific location, at other times, they censor sites that are otherwise accessible (if you enter the site’s URL directly into the browser address bar).

Does Google rank pro-government sites higher on request?
Not directly, but indirectly: if an anti-government site is the #1 result, and a pro-government site is the #2 result, then censoring the anti-government result like e.g. Google China sometimes does pushes the pro-government site higher up the ranking.

Does censoring a search result get rid of the site in question?
One thing to remember is that censoring in search results means “killing the messenger” because you’re not removing the actual site in question, you’re only removing the words of someone telling that it exists. Some countries ensure that the site itself is shut down, or blocked by ISPs, while others often consider a removal of its “traces” in search engines sufficient (e.g. in Germany).

Does Google censor all material the country’s government deems “sensitive"?
No. E.g. in China, much sensitive material is removed, but there’s also a lot of sensitive material that’s being shown in Google.

Do Chinese users prefer the self-censored over the almost non-censored
Not really, according to information from Google’s Sergey Brin, who in 2006 said that “virtually all the company’s customers in China use the non-censored service.”

Can users from China circumvent the Google censorship?
Yes, users can switch from, or to e.g. to circumvent most censorship. However, outside the responsibility of Google, local sites may be blocked by ISPs, in particular in China. However – again in particular in China – there may be some risk involved when you actively try to circumvent censorship (I have no specific information about this).

Does every Google employee agree with Google’s censorship politics?
That’s likely not the case – it is far more likely that even within Google, opinions are divided. Google co-founder Sergey Brin in 2006 pondered “Perhaps now the principled approach makes more sense." Before Google censored in China (according to UC Berkeley News), Sergey argued that “Google does good in China by making it possible for the Chinese people to have broad access to information.” In 2004, the Google Team somewhat proudly posted that “For Internet users in China, Google remains the only major search engine that does not censor any web pages.”

What do locals think of local censorship?
In Germany, some people are pro-censorship when it comes to material such as holocaust denial, while some are against censorship. In China, the opinions are also greatly divided. Human Rights Watch writes (footnotes removed):

Opinions differ in China – even among people who chafe against official restrictions on their freedom of speech – as to whether Google’s compromise was acceptable. When was first rolled out, a number of Chinese bloggers concerned with free speech issues were quick to condemn the move. One labeled the new service the “Castrated Google.” Others, such as Michael Anti, were more philosophical, pointing out that while Google had made a compromise, it had done so after considerable weighing of the human consequences, and made a conscious decision not to provide services that would put itself in the position of having its local employees – with no choice but to comply – into conflict with the Chinese government demands to censor content or, even worse, to hand individuals over to the police.

Some Chinese bloggers have also expressed concern that the existence of the censored will make it easier for Chinese ISP’s to block without excessive public outcry, because some form of Google search remains available. Indeed, in late May and the first days of June – the most politically sensitive time of the year due to the anniversary of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre – several Chinese Internet users in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou reported that was consistently inaccessible while the censored remained accessible as normal.

Chinese Hong Xiaowan argued in this blog’s forum that “Google should [change] their Censorship based on the locations. Different [countries] have different laws, different cultures.” He adds that Chinese want to be rich, free and safe, just like citizens of the US. He says that things aren’t simple in China – “If you think you are protecting the human rights, in fact you are hurt them.”

Isaac Mao, also Chinese, in reply to Hong Xiawon comments: “Google’s decision of self-censorship was made after Google’s business operation in China. Google’s motto and principles was changed by the local employees and local managers, then impacted to their founders by mistake. (...) The ultimate way is keeping its universal value. If ’non-evil’ is a motto, it’s applied anywhere and even anytime. Otherwise, it will lose its value totally. Many people here in China, especially those geeks, hate the comprise by Google. Didn’t Google listen to them? [Remember], they are also opinion leaders to the market, no wonder the market share will lose.”

How did human rights or freedom of speech organizations judge Google’s censorship in China?
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) demands: “If U.S. companies find that oppressive governments block or impede their Internet services, they should not simply give in to the threat.”

The Human Rights Watch boss Ken Roth told CNN: “Google’s in the vanguard in the United States, and it’s compromising along with the rest of them in China. I’m surprised. I would have expected better from Google.”

Amnesty International says: “’The argument that the companies are ’bringing the internet to China’ is spurious: the internet has been in China for ten years. These companies are simply trying to get a slice of a vast and growing market. And it’s at a great cost: their activities are aiding and abetting government censorship rather than challenging it.”

Reporters Without Borders argued: “US firms are now bending to the same censorship rules as their Chinese competitors but they continue to justify themselves by saying their presence has a long-term benefit. Yet the Internet in China is becoming more and more isolated from the outside world and freedom of expression there is shrinking. These firms’ lofty predictions about the future of a free and limitless Internet conveniently hide their unacceptable moral errors.”

How did search bloggers judge upon Google’s censorship in China?

Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Watch wrote: “Ultimately, I want Google to pull out and fight back. I can see the argument for being engaged in a country, for trying to help promote change over time. But I feel like Google should be big enough and principled enough to be engaged by not being engaged. That might do far more good now than years down the line.”

Ionut Alex. Chitu argues: “Somebody told me that is still available in China. So users have 2 options: [1] go to and see results they can’t access [or 2] go to and see only the results they can access. I think this changes things a lot. Google doesn’t censor results, they just remove ’inaccessible links’ (’dead links’ in China).”

John Battelle of Searchblog said: “Sure, I understand the logic. But, your heart, is this what you wanted to do? No? Then why did you do it? (...) I think they convinced themselves it was the right thing to do. They thought themselves into it. And deep down, they aren’t sure they did the right thing. At least, that’s what I want to believe.”

Nathan Weinberg of InsideGoogle said: “I believe Google has the right to censor its searches. That is the cost of doing business in China. But to cloak it in their typical PR-bullshit, to claim that it is in the best interests of Chinese users and not their bottom line, to not once acknowledge that this is the result of laws that should never be, that disgusts me. People have died for this, and how dare you ignore them.”

Miel van Opstal, co-blogger at InsideGoogle, wrote an open letter to Google, arguing: “The [] service might have been slow, but at least it produced results unfiltered. Maybe browsers stalled, maybe Google News was down. Maybe images were only accessible half of the time. At least they were accessible, the other half of the time. At least the info was there. That was something to be proud of. I can’t speak for all the Chinese searchers because I don’t live there, but I’m pretty sure they’ll think you’re a lame service now. You used to be different. Slow, stalling, but different. You were a link with the outside world. Now all you do is promote the same brainless information the other search engines pre-chew for the Chinese people. What extra value is there now, except for the ‘us-too’ feeling that you have for joining a club of engines and deliver the exact same politically corrected results? I dare to say: none.”

Other commenters argued that Google has a legal obligation to its investors to grow its business, justifying their Google China move.

Does Google lobby against censorship?
In the past, no. While Google’s help entry on the subject states that it is their “policy not to censor search results,” they also argue that they will censor content to comply with local laws or regulations. In Germany, for example, Google joined the Voluntary Self-Monitoring of Multimedia Service Providers. In China specifically, according to the Associated Press, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that Google “haven’t lobbied Beijing to change its rules” adding that he thinks “it’s arrogant for us to walk into a country where we are just beginning to operate and tell that country how to operate.”

However, Google in January 2007 along with Microsoft, Yahoo, Reporters Without Borders and others aimed to create a code of conduct “to promote freedom of expression and privacy rights.”

How can I help Google censor results?
This depends on which local version of Google you’d like to see “sensitive” information removed from. E.g. in China, the Ministry of Information website or the Ministry of Information branch handling the shut-down of unregistered Chinese sites, as linked from the homepage. In Germany, your best bet is the complaint form of the Voluntary Self-Monitoring of Multimedia Service Providers, of which Google, Yahoo and others are part of.
If you feel a Blogspot blog contains “sensitive” content, you can flag it by using the top-position “flag” button. At YouTube, you can use the “Flag as Inappropriate” link. When it comes to mere filtering, you can also file a DMCA complaint with Google or report a site to Google’s web spam team.

If you’re a Google employee, you can of course help optimize local filter algorithms to censor more sensitive information than before, or provide better support to countries who don’t have censorship in Google yet.

How can I fight against Google censoring results?
Unless you mobilize huge masses of users who boycott Google, you can’t make them just quickly stop what they’re doing, though every voiced protest (via news reports, letters to Google, demonstrations in front of the Googleplex etc.) will cause the company to see similar issues in a different light in the future, or reconsider their move. Additionally, making censorship more transparent helps defeat its original purpose of hiding information, so it gives less incentive to governments to try impose such censorship regulations. For example, you can report on censorship methodologies, or mirror censor content on your own server.

If you’re a Google employee, you can voice your protest to your co-workers more directly and actively convert your responsibility into action. You can also help make the issue more transparent to the outside world by talking about censorship specifics, not generalizations.

As a citizen, to make the country in question stop their censorship behavior, you can protest against local laws (e.g. organize demonstrations) and vote for those politicians opposing censorship (or get active in politics yourself). However if you’re in e.g. China this may cost you your freedom (the Chinese authorities jails many of its critics).

Does censorship really matter?
Ideas have effects on lives, and removing access to the ideas (for you can’t ever remove an idea itself), does have a very real effect on us. Depending on where you live this may be a mere theoretical issue. In other countries, your freedom of speech is heavily limited in everyday communication. German writer Heinrich Heine once said, “This is only the beginning, for where they burn books, in the end they’ll burn humans too.” What we should realize when thinking about the issue is that some of the authors of material Google now agreed to censor are kept in jail for writing it. On the other hand, speeding up access to information matters as well, and Google’s voiced position is that providing a self-censored local search engine provides a better overall search service.

Isn’t Google just following orders?
Digital censorship is more subtle than book burnings like in the past because you won’t see any single person lighting a match. The responsibility is far more diverted: from a government order passed through various instances, or a court order, to an ISP, to a search engine, to the PC or the browser itself, there is a multitude of ways the responsibility of censorship can be shared, and every party gets some right to point to someone else, arguing they have the best intents and are themselves an irresponsible part of a longer responsibility chain. This however does not free any of the various parties from the responsibility.


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