January 25, 2006
GOOGLE will today cave in to pressure from the Chinese Government by launching a local website that strips out information not approved by the Communist authorities.
The company, whose motto is “Don’t be evil”, is launching a version of its site that restricts Chinese people from searching for information about Tibetan independence or the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
“In order to operate from China, we have removed some content from the search results available on Google.cn, in response to local law, regulation or policy,” the internet company said in a statement issued yesterday.
Google insiders acknowledge that the company is likely to be criticised for its actions. Its motivation is partly a need to restore its declining market share in China and partly a hope that providing a restricted service will help to unleash information in the country.
The search terms blocked by Google.cn will include what are known as the “the three t’s and the two c’s”: references to Taiwanese or Tibetan independence, the Tiananmen massacre, cult-related searches, which may trigger reference to the banned Falun Gong organisation, and information about Communist party supremacy.
Google is already subject to Chinese government censorship, which blocks search results returning undesired information. The country maintains a sophisticated system of internet monitoring — known as “The Great Firewall of China” — that restricts access to a range of Western sites.
The company estimates that about 1,000 search catagories are blocked by this filtering. No published list of barred terms exists, although the authorities are quick to complain if offending information becomes available.
As a result of the filtering, access to Google’s website is slowed down, and its position is under threat from Baidu, a Chinese company that is the local market leader. According to research published last July, Google had a share of about 28 per cent and falling, while Baidu’s share was just over 40 per cent and rising.
Until now, Google has held out from doing a deal in China, while rivals Yahoo! and Microsoft, owner of MSN Search, have shown a willingness to compromise with the authorities. Last year Yahoo! provided information that helped to jail a dissident for ten years, after he used a Yahoo! e-mail to relay the contents of a secret government order. In December, Microsoft closed down a political blogger’s site, arguing that he had failed to comply with local laws.
Seeking to avert these types of dispute, Google will not introduce
a version of its e-mail or blog software for the time being.
Google’s founders agreed to be paid annual salaries of $1 each in 2006, counting instead on the search engine’s shares to pay their way. Google has approved the $1 base salary for chairman and chief executive Eric Schmidt, as well as co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The trio were also paid $1 in salary during 2005.
Censorship could undermine integrity
GOOGLE’s reputation is built on the integrity of its
search results but its expansion has put that aspiration under pressure.
The decision to censor some of its database results in China was the latest difficult decision that the search engine has had to make.
In Germany, searches on Nazi-related topics were already blocked;
in America, copyright infringement was carefully policed.
However, neither of those restrictions were as dramatic as the political censorship that Google accepted on its results in China.
So far, such censorship has not dented Google’s position as the world’s most popular search engine — although it was not clear whether users of its search engine were aware of the censorship that the company has imposed. However, such compromises could affect the image of the company.
The company was probably the most sensitive of internet search engines to political or privacy concerns.
Last week, it emerged that Google was in dispute with the US Attorney-General over his demand to access a week of records on search terms by users. The Attorney-General wanted the records to help to establish the extent of child pornography on the internet. Other search engines complied with a broader request without complaint.
Market is too large to ignore
THE theory was that the internet could never be censored but with impressive technical effort and willing Western companies the Chinese authorities appear to have succeeded.
Google is simply the latest internet company to conclude that the world’s most populous country is too important a market to ignore. It has accepted local censorship requirements that have already been endorsed by both Yahoo! and Microsoft.
Time Warner, the media group, is one of the few companies to have walked away from China. In 2002 it abandoned a planned internet joint venture in the country because of concerns that local authorities would want to access private e-mail accounts.
Google says that it is important to engage with China, even
in a restricted form. It says that “providing no information, or a heavily
degraded user experience that amounts to no information, is . . . inconsistent
with our vision”.