Internet disruptions raise tensions for Google in China

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 1, 2010

Several Internet disruptions in Asia this week portend what could be a long standoff between China and foreign search giants.

On Tuesday, Internet hackers hit Vietnamese-speaking computer users in an attempt to squelch criticism of a controversial Chinese-backed mining project in Vietnam, according to Google. And foreign journalists covering China and Taiwan reported that their Yahoo e-mail accounts were recently hacked.

The episodes this week came amid growing anxiety over the Chinese government's response to Google's decision to shut down its search engine there and reroute traffic to an uncensored site based in Hong Kong. On Monday, Google said it appeared that China had temporarily blocked mainland users from accessing its Hong Kong site.

The Chinese government hasn't confirmed the reports, and Google says it is unclear where the malware attack on Vietnamese computer users originated. But analysts say the incidents indicate that Beijing is unmoved by international criticism of its censorship practices and may continue to interfere with Web traffic.

"What we're doing is running our business," said a source at Google who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue. "But we hope we don't die a death of a thousand cuts and understand that this happens."

Some experts say that Google had to take a stand against China because of a growing movement among other nations, including Australia, to pass laws that would censor some online content, including pornography. Iran currently blocks Facebook and Google, and Turkey suspended access to YouTube in 2007 because of videos that presented its national founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in an unfavorable light.

But Google faces a balancing act in resisting China's censorship policies, as important U.S. trade partners such as South Korea and Italy also have imposed controls over Web access.

"It's a business decision in that it is easier to run a business with a single framework," said Clay Shirky, a new-media professor at New York University. "But if a government succeeds in introducing controls over the Internet, Google stops being a single supra-national business and turns into 193 national businesses, and it's not fun running 193 businesses."

Google's move has chilled some of its relationships with partners in China, but the company won't be significantly hurt by the loss of business there, said Clayton Moran, a stock analyst at the Benchmark Co. He said Google's online advertising business in China represents about only 1 percent of its total revenue.

"But what is potentially lost is future growth," Moran said. China "is the largest Internet market by users today and is still immature from a monetization standpoint."

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