Google to stop censoring search results in China

By Ellen Nakashima, Cecilia Kang and John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Google announced Monday that it would stop censoring search results on its site in China, forcing authorities in Beijing to decide whether they are willing to forsake one of the most important tools of modern technology so that they can maintain their iron grip over the flow of information.

In negotiations with Chinese authorities over the past two months, Google had tried to determine whether it could operate an unfiltered search engine in China under the country's laws. But Chinese officials, the company said Monday, made it "crystal clear . . . that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement."

As a result, Google has made what analysts described as a shrewd but risky business decision -- to redirect users in mainland China to its search engine based in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China that operates its own economic and political systems. The company described the move as a "sensible solution."

"This move is entirely legal by Chinese law and Hong Kong law, and that is important to know: that we are abiding by the law," a source at Google said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Still, the decision puts the Internet search giant, which has a huge financial stake in China, on a collision course with Beijing. Despite Google's intention to keep some of its business operations in China, the government there could shut it down, block all of its sites or even take action against some of its 700 employees there.

That concern was evident in Google's announcement Monday, which stressed that "all these decisions have been driven and implemented by our executives in the United States, and that none of our employees in China can, or should, be held responsible for them."

The move drew a quick and angry response in Beijing, where an unnamed government official said that the Chinese had been patient with Google but that the company had nonetheless "violated its written promise" to censor search results, according to the state-run New China News Service.

"We're uncompromisingly opposed to the politicization of commercial issues and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations," said the official, a spokesman for the office of the State Council, China's cabinet.

As of Tuesday morning in Beijing, China had started blocking results for sensitive searches on Google's Hong Kong-based site, Searches for sensitive subjects such as the banned spiritual sect Falun Gong or Tiananmen 64 -- shorthand for the June 4, 1989, crackdown on student-led protests in Beijing -- produced a blank screen or an error message. Earlier in the morning, results were generated but the links were blocked.

Google and the Chinese government have clashed repeatedly over the past year. China blocked one of Google's sites, YouTube, last March in an apparent attempt to stop people in China from viewing videos of anti-government protests by Tibetans and Uighurs, a mostly Muslim ethnic group in China's northwest Xinjiang region.

In June, after the government accused Google of making pornography available on the Internet in China, company officials were hauled in to explain. Then in December, the firm said its computer system had been the target of sophisticated attacks originating in China.

The attacks, combined with further attempts to limit free speech in China, led Google to "to conclude that we could no longer continue censoring our results on," David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, said in a post on the company's blog Monday.

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