Regarding Google’s much lamented decision to self-censor its Chinese language search service inside China: I don’t disapprove in principle, but I do believe it is a terrible decision on practical grounds, because it sets a bad precedent that could affect Google Earth’s user experience down the line.
Here are two reasons why I don’t have a moral problem with Google censoring results on behalf of the Chinese government:
1) The plain-vanilla English-language Google search service continues to be available to all in China, uncensored by Google but with “subversive” outbound links blocked by China. So choose your poison.
2) Crucially, every censored search result is tagged as such by Google, so the censorship is not surreptitious. This means that millions of upcoming Google searches are going to become constant daily reminders to Chinese users that they do not live in a free society, and I don’t think that this effect should be underestimated. For example, China’s own media cannot help but report that there is censorship and that it is at the behest of the Chinese government. (But again, it is crucial to me that censored information be portrayed as such by Google. Google musn’t lie. That’s a hard line.)
I still think the decision to censor is a terrible idea, however, because it sends entirely the wrong signal to overbearing governments everywhere: They now know Google will accommodate them and their insecurities if the price is high enough.
While my search experience in Sweden will not be affected by China putting its foot down on content delivered locally, my Google Earth experience most certainly would be if India or Thailand or Russia were to insist on the blurring of sensitive sites, as there is only one Google Earth dataset. The smart money is now on Google blinking if it were to come down to a stark choice between closing down shop in India or blurring a proffered list of sensitive sites. And that would mean that my Google Earth experience suffers.
Unlike with search, Google agreeing to censor Google Earth content for local users only (if it could) would not satisfy a paranoid government’s demands, as that would mean, perversely, that external enemies have the advantage. No, calls for censorship in Google Earth are always calls for censorship of the one global data set. And the likelihood of such calls being made, and ultimately succeeding, just got higher.
[Update 19.08 UTC: A Swede tries out Google.cn, and indeed finds “据当地法律法规和政策，部分搜索结果未予显示。”, “In accordance with local laws and policy a part of the search result is omitted”, for searches of both “Falun Gong” and “the Communist Party.” So it seems to be working. His conclusion is similar to mine: “In China though, just letting people know that the information is being censored is a kind of progress. ‘Don’t do evil’, sort of.”]