Ma Xiu Jia


Google and YouTube sitting in a tree

October 17th, 2006

So Google bought YouTube. And they paid US$1.6 billion for it. Three young'uns, all of them more or less my age, sold a website they created about a year ago and instantly became millionaires many (many) times over. Allow me to duly take my place in the long line of well-wishers that has started forming ever since last week's announcement.

Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim
YouTube's three founders: Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim (pictures courtesy of someone else)

However, while waiting for my turn to kneel down and kiss the knuckles of the new kings of the internet, I'd like to pause for a moment and discuss a less well-known fact about Google. A fact that I've read surprisingly little about during my daily rounds of the web, dilligently skimming oodles of posts on the latest in tech.

Google voluntarily censors its own Google Video web portal out of existence in China. I'm totally in the dark as to why they do this. People who happen to live in China and who happen to enjoy YouTube (I'm guilty on both counts), are probably right in fearing that the arcane rulers of Google might prescribe a similar regimen of self-censorship for their fledgling acquisition. Google itself stated that: "YouTube will operate independently to preserve its successful brand and passionate community." For now, that might mean that they'll leave well enough alone. But who knows what the future will bring?

It's well-known and exhaustively publicised that 谷歌 (1) ('gu ge', Google's Chinese name) is in cahoots with the restrictive government of China. Last january jaws dropped around the world when Google, until then everybody's can-do-no-wrong darling, decided to censor the content it provided to users in China. That decision was part of their efforts to ensconce themselves relatively early in the still young Chinese internet market (last July, around 123 million Chinese were 'internet users', out of a total population of 1.3 billion). Apparently, to be able to compete with Chinese search giant Baidu, they deemed it necessary to set up offices in China, and acquire the www.google.cn domain. However, the local government would not allow them to set up in the country if they did not agree to do as other web companies in China do: self-censor. Google said yes, forgot their 'Do no evil' corporate slogan and tried to talk their way out of their self-inflicted PR mess by saying that providing information, even "filtered", is better than not providing information at all. Thousands of writers on the web took a moment to wag their finger at Google, and subsequently went on to immediately forget the entire episode. Google started filtering and people stopped caring.

There is more though: Google Video is not available in China. It wasn't before and it isn't today. Without getting into a lot of gory details, let me qualify that statement by presenting you with a smidgeon of fact. Google's video site, video.google.com, presents only its homepage in China, but doesn't actually allow people in that country to watch anything. When someone who happens to be in China tries to access any of the (free) videos presented on the homepage they are friendly yet unwaveringly told to go pound sand. When you are unfortunate enough, for example, to be baptised as netizen 202.173.8.233 (2) (as I once was not too long ago) you will be unable to delight in the inane antics of say, the dancing penguins that were featured prominently on the site. Giddy with anticipation though you may be, clicking on the the penguins will only take you to the following page:

Google Video is not available in China
Instant frustration!
Having a static message up on a website for more than a year, thanking people for their patience is akin to smiling politely while you kick a man between the legs.
Moreover, I feel compelled to point out that this is not my country: I am not Chinese, I only live here.
So make with the penguins already!

Now, for those interested, there is a way to get gratification throughout all this: downloading and allowing the lovely threesome Tor, Vidalia and Privoxy to do their thing. Though again, I don't want to go into too many details, (if that's what you're after, I'd implore you to check out EFF), I do want to tell you that my Firefox browser is set up to change identities at the press of a button (Proxybutton to be exact). Though I might be known as 202.173.8.233 one moment, the next I can be, for example, 81.169.178.235. And I would be, for all accounts and purposes, hailing from Berlin, Germany. Most importantly, I'd be in instant penguin heaven:

Penguin heaven
The penguins load, but they do so very reluctantly. It took many minutes to load a mere 23 seconds of penguin joy.

There are two major problems with this solution, however. First is the fact that the installation of external software is required. It may not be available or even comprehensible to the average computer user. Moreover, many of China's internet users use the net in the non-privacy of internet café's, where installing software is often prohibited, and where installing software to specifically circumvent the government's content restrictions might not be such a good idea to begin with.

Another problem, and a big problem at that, is that Tor, godsend though it may, slows downloadspeeds to a mere trickle. Viewing a short video becomes an undertaking that must be carefully deliberated, planned and executed.

Also, though perhaps less hard-hitting point than ephemeral musing of a slightly neurotic net surfer: One of Tor's stated aims is "[...] protecting you from websites that build profiles of your interests, local eavesdroppers that read your data or learn what sites you visit." It conjures vague images of persecuted dissidents, future Nobel peace prize winners perhaps, sitting in dingy caves, feverishly banging their world-changing prose into the keyboards of battered laptops. The Tor network was erected with lofty aims. As such, I feel a little guilty when I pull such low-brow fodder as dancing penguins through its straining pipes.

In conclusion, although it's unclear as to why Google decided to shutter its video service to surfers from China, one would hope that they will not do the same to their recently acquired YouTube service.


(1) The preceding are two Chinese characters. To have them display correctly, you need to have Chinese fonts installed on your computer.

(2) As the friendly and professional folks at APNIC will tell you, that particular IP address is managed by TelChina(SD), and gets assigned dynamically to the latter's broadband customers in Jinan, Shandong, China.


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