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Google's China Filtering Draws Fire

By Jay Lyman
Dec 1, 2004 11:52 AM PT

The group Reporters Without Borders is blasting search engine leader Google for its supposed complicity in government censorship, requesting that the popular Web tool provider pull its news service that excludes content not approved by the Chinese government.

Google's China Filtering Draws Fire

The group, which has been critical of content and technology providers including Yahoo, Google and Cisco, argues that the censored Internet resources and tools to produce them are unethical and socially irresponsible.

However, observers such as Frost & Sullivan senior analyst Mukul Krishna argue that such companies -- eager to tap foreign, fertile markets -- have little choice but to work within government guidelines.

Krishna also told TechNewsWorld that it was better to give Internet users in China some exposure, even if it is censored, to the Internet. "Just as a business decision, you have to do it," Krishna said. "Over a period of time, even from a social perspective, you are giving these people exposure. The fact that those people are getting exposure to other things happening in the world is a good thing."

Googling in Chinese

Reporters Without Borders described a Chinese version of Google, launched in September, that leaves out Voice of America and other Web sites that the Chinese government finds objectionable.

"China is censoring Google News to force Internet users to use the Chinese version of the site which has been purged of the most critical news reports," said a statement from the group. "By agreeing to launch a news service that excludes publications disliked by the government, Google has let itself be used by Beijing."

RWB said that Google can still choose to defend press and Internet freedom, but it did not indicate if that means halting operations in countries where the governments are notoriously inflexible and controlling of media.

Business Beckons

Frost & Sullivan's Krishna argued that companies such as Google have little negotiating power with officials in China, where a booming Internet population represents what many consider the largest new technology market in the world.

"The thing is, especially in a place like China, you can't bargain. You don't have much leeway," Krishna said. "Because you don't have that bargaining leverage, it's important to find the least common denominator between the two and enter the market with that initially."

Krishna said the censorship rules can be circumvented through technology and typically loosen over time.

"From a business perspective, you go where the dollars are," he said. "You can't forget one political area and hope that is going to carry you forward. If you do, the market will punish you harshly."

Supporting Censorship

Nart Villeneuve, director of technical research at The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, said his group tested the Chinese Language Google News filtering last September and confirmed it was filtering access from China.

"It is actually a form of geolocation filtering since users who access Chinese Language Google News from anywhere but China are not subjected to the filtering and receive full search results," Villeneuve told TechNewsWorld.

"I am disappointed that Google filters Web sites that are blocked in China from their Chinese Language News Service. Maybe I expect more from Google, but keeping the results [available] would have highlighted Internet censorship in China and allowed Chinese Internet users to see what content they are being denied access to."

Google Response

For its part, Google claimed that the Chinese access to its news site was sporadic because of the government's technical practices. In a blog entry in September with the launch of Google News China, the search leader indicated it was not providing links that cannot be accessed in China because it would be counter to the company's goals of relevance.

In response to the Reporters Without Borders request, Google said in a statement it was aware of the issues and investigating the matter.


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