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China censors searches on Google's Hong Kong-based search engine

By John Pomfret, Ellen Nakashima and Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 23, 2010; 1:24 PM

BEIJING -- China began blocking results for sensitive searches on Google's Hong Kong-based Web site Tuesday, after the Internet search giant said it would redirect users from the mainland to the Hong Kong site in an effort to avoid Chinese censorship.

Searches on Google.com.hk for 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 on a computer in Beijing, the Chinese capital. Early in the morning, results were generated but the links were blocked.

Other signs were mounting that China was intent on punishing the Internet giant for its bold but risky decision to publicly confront China's policy of limiting the free flow of information.

A Hong Kong Internet company, called TOM Online, announced it had stopped using Google's search mechanism. "TOM reiterated that as a Chinese company, we adhere to rules and regulations in China where we operate our businesses," the company's parent, Hong Kong-based TOM Group, said in a statement Tuesday.

And two state-owned mobile phone companies -- China Mobile, with 500 million users, and China Unicom, China's second-biggest -- were also believed to be rethinking their contracts with Google. China Mobile uses Google on its mobile home page; China Unicom had planned to introduce a cellphone based on Google's Android platform.

James A. Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said if China tries to restrict Google's advertising business in China, or takes other steps to punish the company for its actions outside mainland China, it would be violating international trade agreements.

"The temptation will be for the Chinese government to look for some way to punish to Google, and that's where we need the U.S. government to step in and say, 'This is contrary to your [trade] commitments,' " Lewis said. "China won't stop filtering, but punishing Google for something they're doing outside of [mainland] China . . . that's extra-territorial and violates its trade commitments."

Google announced Monday that it would stop censoring search results on its site in China, after two months of negotiations with Chinese authorities to determine whether Google could legally operate an unfiltered search engine in China. Chinese officials, the company said Monday, made it "crystal clear . . . that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement."

Google's efforts to avoid censorship are 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 what analysts described as a shrewd but risky business decision, Google began sending users in mainland China to the site 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.

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 Google.cn," David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, said in a post on the company's blog Monday.

Internet users in China can, with some effort, get around what is known as the Great Firewall. But government barriers have prevented tens of millions of mainland Chinese from seeing vast segments of cyberspace. Chinese in Hong Kong -- beneficiaries of Beijing's "one country, two systems" policy -- have had access to unfiltered results.

Google's decision Monday, some experts said, threatens to reveal to mainland Chinese that the government has effectively operated a parallel set of unequal Internet universes.

If China allows sensitive queries to go through, mainland Chinese users "are going to find out that there are Chinese who are part of China who have a freer Internet than they do," said James Mulvenon, an expert on the Chinese military and cyberspace and director of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis at Defense Group Inc.

The spokesman for China's State Council said that officials had met with Google representatives twice since January. Google, in its statement detailing its decision, acknowledged the difficulty of figuring out how it would stop censoring results.

Rebecca MacKinnon, a China expert and visiting fellow at the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, suggested that Google knew that negotiations with China would be unsuccessful but that they were necessary.

If Google had stopped censoring immediately, it undoubtedly would have exposed its Chinese employees to an immediate threat of retribution.

"So what they did instead was to enter into negotiations with the Chinese government to operate as an uncensored search engine in China," she said. "They asked and were rejected, but they had to go through that process."

Human rights groups hailed Google's decision to stop self-censoring, casting it as an important challenge to the Chinese government's censorship system.

"As a practical matter, it means that they may have to leave, but they're going to force the government to choose between an uncensored search engine and kicking Google out," said Arvind Ganesan, business and human rights director at Human Rights Watch.

Observers have suggested that Google's fate in China could have implications for other U.S.-based companies, especially at a time of heightened tensions between the government and the Western business community.

For now, the Chinese have insisted that Google's case will not affect the investment environment in China. Microsoft, among the U.S.-based tech firms with extensive operations in China, said it has no plans to halt operations there. "We appreciate that different companies may make different decisions based on their own experiences and views," spokeswoman Kim Kuresman said in a statement.

The Obama administration said Monday that it was disappointed that Google and China were not able to reach an agreement that would have allowed the search engine to operate its services in mainland China through Google.cn. But Mike Hammer, spokesman for President Obama's National Security Council, said the White House respected Google's decision.

"We have previously raised our concerns about this issue directly with the Chinese government," Hammer said in a statement. "As both President Obama and Secretary [of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton have stressed on several occasions, we are committed to internet freedom and are opposed to censorship."

Nakashima and Kang reported from Washington. Staff writers Scott Wilson and Howard Schneider contributed to this report.

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