When web surfers from the city of Shenzhen, in southern China, visit a government website, they are greeted by two adorable cartoon figures, a tiny policeman and policewoman with friendly smiles, no noses (for some reason) and huge melting blue anime eyes. These little rascals' names are Jingjing and Chacha (jingcha is Mandarin for police), and they are there to remind Web surfers to behave themselves because the Internet cops are always watching.
Westerners tend to think of the Web the way we think of the moon: it looks the same everywhere, and when you're on it you can pretty much do whatever you want. But seen from China, the Web is very different. Beijing employs a force of 30,000 Internet censors 24/7, blocking access to many sites expressing nonapproved opinions on hot-button issues like Taiwanese independence and the Falun Gong religious sect. When Western Web surfers search for images of "Tiananmen" on Google, they get row upon row of tanks, the indelible afterimage of the tragedy of 1989. Do the same search when you're in China, and you get a snapshot of U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez and his wife posing in Tiananmen Square on a p.r. trip.
The Web giant Google reminded everybody very publicly last week how differently things work in China. Google launched a Chinese version of itself, Google.cn, that is heavily censored to comply with Communist Party regulations. For a company with the unofficial motto "Don't be evil," a company that has picked up the fallen standard of Internet idealism, that was a bit of a shocker. Did the virtuous Google just sell out its honor?
The harder you look at it, the harder it gets to decide. First you have to figure out what exactly Google just did. Google already has a Chinese-language version of Google.com--it has had one since 2000. But the authorities weren't fond of it, so they blocked access to its cached pages, Google's stored copies of websites, which could be used to view otherwise censored material. Using its online filters--the so-called Great Firewall of China--the government also made Google run annoyingly slowly, and sometimes not at all. The new site, Google.cn, is physically based in China and runs speedily and reliably, but its contents are censored by Google to accord with government preferences. (A warning label informs the user of this arrangement.) So basically, China's Web surfers have a choice: they can use slow, relatively uncensored Google.com or speedy, sanitized Google.cn.
Certainly the decision caused some hair tearing at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. "It's never obvious what to do in these situations," Google co-founder Larry Page told TIME. "One of the principles we believe pretty strongly is that having really good access to information for people is a great way of improving the world." But in the end Google chose to dance with the dragon--presumably the cha-cha. "Filtering our search results clearly compromises our mission," the company's official statement says. "Failing to offer Google search at all to a fifth of the world's population, however, does so far more severely."