From their blog (and the first post of any consequence, IMHO):
For last week’s launch of the Chinese-language edition of Google News, we had to decide whether sources that cannot be viewed in China should be included for Google News users inside the PRC. Naturally, we want to present as broad a range of news sources as possible. For every edition of Google News, in every language, we attempt to select news sources without regard to political viewpoint or ideology. For Internet users in China, we had to consider the fact that some sources are entirely blocked. Leaving aside the politics, that presents us with a serious user experience problem. Google News does not show news stories, but rather links to news stories. So links to stories published by blocked news sources would not work for users inside the PRC — if they clicked on a headline from a blocked source, they would get an error page. It is possible that there would be some small user value to just seeing the headlines. However, simply showing these headlines would likely result in Google News being blocked altogether in China.
We also considered the amount of information that would be omitted. In this case it is less than two percent of Chinese news sources. On balance we believe that having a service with links that work and omits a fractional number is better than having a service that is not available at all. It was a difficult tradeoff for us to make, but the one we felt ultimately serves the best interests of our users located in China. We appreciate your feedback on this issue.
“It is possible that there would be some small user value to just seeing the headlines. ” No, I disagree. It’s more than possible, it’s a fact, and it’s not small, it’s all. The value is in knowing that you’re not seeing All That’s Really Out There. I wish Google would take a stronger public stand on this, as this rather fence-sitting statement could well strain the company’s credibility in otherwise untainted areas of its endeavors, and that’s too bad.
I’m not claiming Google should have tempted fate and forced China to shut them down (thought that would have been pretty f*cking cool, I have to say). And while I am sure this clarification was quite considered, it’s not exactly what I and others counseled. On the other hand, who the hell are we to judge? It’s a good start – they copped to the real situation, which is that if they added the blocked sites’ headlines, they’d most likely lose the service altogether. In the end, that’s why they did what they did. The user experience hoo-ha, while defensible in a Letter of The Law kind of way, is political legerdemain. I respect and agree with Google’s main decision – it was hard to make, I am sure. Yet I still wish they’d be more open with us over here in the Free World – let us know that they understand the value of what they had to take away from Chinese users in order to provide them Google News. Maybe even lodge a formal, if diplomatic, protest to the Chinese government in some way. What, no other company does that? Well, sure, but no other company opens their S1 with a statement like “Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.”
With time, the company will get there. It’s not easy learning to be public, I am sure. Plus, it’s got to be hard to be the one everyone looks to for leadership. And it’s doubly hard when you set the bar for yourself at a subjective (though admirable) goal like Don’t Be Evil.