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Google trades big market for free speech in China

International press freedom and human rights organisations have come down heavily on Internet behemoth Google for launching a censored version of its search engine in China whose Internet users will only be able to look up material approved of by the government and nothing about Tibet or democracy and human rights in China.


FILTERED OUT: Chinese youths use computers at an Internet cafe in Beijing in this June 18, 2005 file photo. Google's decision to filter sensitive topics from Web searches in China is a major triumph for the regime's campaign to have the Internet censor itself, observers said Thursday, January 26, amid mounting criticism of the move. (AP Photo/Greg Baker, File)

Google said on January 24 it will block politically sensitive terms on its new China search site and not offer e-mail, chat and blog publishing services, which authorities fear can become flashpoints for social or political protest. Homegrown giants like Sohu.com and Baidu.com, along with China sites operated by Yahoo and Microsoft, all routinely block searches on politically sensitive terms such as the Falun Gong spiritual movement and Taiwan independence.

Amnesty International Secretary-General Irene Khan, in a statement from the World Economic Forum in Davos, said, "While acknowledging that Google has taken a number of steps to ensure access of Chinese users to the Internet, Amnesty International is nonetheless dismayed at the growing global trend in the IT industry."

Khan said, "Whether succumbing to demands from Chinese officials or anticipating government concerns, companies that impose restrictions that infringe on human rights are being extremely short-sighted. The agreements the industry enters into with the Chinese government, whether tacit or written, go against the IT industry's claim that it promotes the right to freedom of information of all people, at all times, everywhere."

"The Internet in China has failed to realise its potential for providing an alternate source of independent information and a forum for public debate," Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Executive Director Cooper said. "While the Chinese government has made sure of this, Internet companies have failed to take a strong public stand in defending the ideals of free expression to which they owe their existence."

Reporters sans Frontières (RSF) said, "The launch of Google.cn is a black day for freedom of expression in China. The firm defends rights of US Internet users before the US government but fails to defend its Chinese users against theirs. Google's statements about respecting online privacy are the height of hypocrisy. Like its competitors, the company says it has no choice and must obey Chinese laws, but this is a tired argument. Freedom of expression isn't a minor principle that can be pushed aside when dealing with a dictatorship. It's a principle recognised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and features in the Chinese national constitution itself."

The first glimpse at Google's new Chinese offerings comes less than a week after it resisted the US Justice Department's efforts to get information about commonly used sex search terms. That government demand was met by Yahoo and Microsoft

Last year, Microsoft launched a portal in China that blocks use of words such as 'freedom' in blog text. The company recently closed down the blog of Zhao Jing, who used the name Michael An Ti, after he supported a strike against the politically-motivated sacking of an editor at the Beijing News.

Yahoo has admitted revealing email account details of journalist Shi Tao to Chinese authorities, who was peacefully exercising his right to impart information, a move that contributed to his prosecution and sentencing to 10 years in prison.


CENSOR BOARD: CEO of Google Eric Schmidt gestures while speaking during a plenary entitled 'Digital 2.0:Powering a Creative Economy' at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 27. During the plenary CEO of Microsoft Bill Gates said the specter of state censorship and the proliferation of software piracy shouldn't deter technology companies from doing business in China. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

"US firms are bending to the same censorship rules as their Chinese competitors but they continue to justify themselves by saying their presence has a long-term benefit. Yet the Internet in China is becoming more isolated from the outside world and freedom of expression there is shrinking. These firms' lofty predictions about the future of a free and limitless Internet conveniently hide their unacceptable moral errors," RSF said.

"Agreements between global corporations and the Chinese authorities has entrenched Internet censorship as the norm in China," said Khan. "Internet companies justify their actions on the basis of Chinese regulations. In fact, such agreements and the resulting self-censorship, violate both international standards and China's own constitution, which protects freedom of expression."

International law guarantees the right to freedom of information and the free flow of ideas across borders. While some restrictions on these have been developed over the years, the manner in which IT companies are freely submitting to opaque Chinese policies, is unacceptable. "The Internet heralded unfettered access to information in a borderless world. Instead, companies are helping governments build borders to prevent their citizens from accessing information," said Khan.

"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," Andrew McLaughlin, Google's senior policy counsel, said. "While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information (or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information) is more inconsistent with our mission."

Google co-founder Sergey Brin defended the decision saying it followed a change of heart over how best to foster the free flow of information. "I didn't think I would come to this conclusion – but eventually I came to the conclusion that more information is better, even if it is not as full as we would like to see," Brin told Reuters. "I know a lot of people are upset by our decision but it is something we have deliberated for a number of years," he said from the sidelines of the World Economic Forum conference.

Google, known for its "Don't do evil" mantra, is developing its China approach as it seeks to strike a balance between the freedom of information it champions and the censorship demanded by Beijing, which controls access to China's 111 million Internet users, according to RSF.


SEEING EVIL: Students For A Free Tibet protest in front of Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California January 25, 2006. China's propaganda mandarins closed an outspoken supplement of a respected newspaper, as Web search leader Google announced restrictions on a new service for China to avoid confrontation with Beijing. (Reuters/Kimberly White)

Meanwhile, Chris Smith, chairman of the Congressional subcommittee that oversees global human rights, has announced that he will hold a hearing on February 16 to investigate the conduct of US technology firms in China. "It is astounding that Google, whose corporate philosophy is 'Don't be evil', would enable evil by co-operating with China's censorship policies just to make a buck," said Smith, a Republican.

"China's policy of cutting off the free flow of information is prohibitive for the growth of democracy and the rule of law. Many Chinese have suffered imprisonment and torture in the service of truth, and now Google is collaborating with their persecutors." Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Cisco are being asked to attend and explain their behaviour. Also scheduled to testify are James Keefe, State Department senior advisor for China and Mongolia, Julien Pain of RSF, and Harry Wu from LaoGai Research Foundation.

Up to now, according to RSF, Google has only censored its news site, Google News, by removing material from sources banned by the Chinese authorities. It has not censored its standard US-based search-engine, accessible at www.google.com/intl/zh-CN, and is the last of the world's major search-engines not to have done so inside China. Yahoo ! has been working with Chinese censors for more than three years.

By offering a version without "subversive" content, RSF said, Google is making it easier for Chinese officials to filter the Internet themselves. A website not listed by search-engines has little chance of being found by users. The new Google version means that even if a human rights publication is not blocked by local firewalls, it has no chance of being read in China.

RSF wrote to Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in May last year asking if they were going to censor their tool for the Chinese market and expressing concern at some recent Google decisions. In July 2004, the firm took a share in the Chinese firm Baidu, which operates a highly-censored search-engine. Soon afterwards, Google was allowed to open an office in China under a conditional agreement with the authorities.

Google has long offered a full-featured Chinese language version of its Google.com service available to users worldwide and run from computers in its California headquarters. But the company is preparing to run the service from China under a site with the local suffix ".cn", after getting a business licence to operate in the market last year, hiring two key executives to head its China operation and signing up an initial round of partners to market some of its ad services.

Date posted: January 29, 2006 Last modified: May 23, 2018 Total views: 10