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China Google boss departure reignites debate over censorship

September 7, 2009

By Laura Donnelly, Peter Foster and Amanda Andrews - 05 Sep 2009

They were never going to be the easiest of bedfellows. When Google, the
modern face of Western freedom, first decided to launch a censored version
of its search engine inside communist China, civil liberties campaigners
were appalled.

That was in 2006. Yesterday the sudden and unexpected resignation of Kai-Fu
Lee, the head of Google China, reignited the debate about how a business
model built on providing unfettered access to information can possibly
thrive in a regime that thrives on control - and whether it should try to.

Mr Lee, 47, who was born in Taiwan but educated in the US, is seen in China
as an Alan Sugar-type business celebrity - and after four years at the helm
was said yesterday to be leaving to start a venture capital fund to help
young Chinese entrepreneurs start new web-based businesses.

But his surprise departure from a high-flying role in one of the world's
most influential companies has led inevitably to new questions about the
tensions between Google and China's communist leadership.

It follows 12 months in which Google China, despite its decision to accept
restrictions on its search engine to conform with communist censorship, has
come under increasingly hostile fire from the Beijing government.

The company denied that Mr Lee's departure was a sign of anything other than
his desire to embark on something new. But on his blog he wrote that he
wanted to be "actively involved in the work and to have full control over
it" - a hint, some suspect, that he did not feel completely in charge of

Mathew McDougall, the chief executive of SinoTech Group, China's largest
independent digital marketing agency, told The Sunday Telegraph: "He seems
like a guy who tried very hard and in the end got frustrated in the role.

"Since he arrived at Google he's had a difficult job - and myriad bad
publicity in the last quarter. None of that has made his life easier and it
looks as if he's gone off to do something for himself that is free of the
constraints that come with trying to do business in the Chinese internet

In January, three years after Google China ( was launched, Beijing
authorities fired a warning shot.

As part of an initiative "to purify the internet's cultural environment" the
government accused the search engine of failing to use effective measures to
block searches for "vulgar, pornographic sites".

In June, state censors went further, announcing "punitive measures" over the
same concern, and blocking all access to the site for several hours. A
spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry accused the search engine of
spreading "large amounts of vulgar content that is lascivious and
pornographic, seriously violating China's relevant laws and regulations".

Google, which had been careful to heavily self-censor during the 20th
anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre a few weeks earlier, swallowed
the ticking off.

Having recently had access to its You Tube site barred by censors, it
altered its search algorithms in an attempt to meet the government request.

However, suggestions of unfair bias against the company began to circulate
when it became clear that similar pornography was equally available through
Chinese web portals which were not receiving the same treatment.

Industry insiders said last night that Google was a victim of the communist
regime's heightened vigilance over internet activity in a year peppered with
sensitive dates - from the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests
in the spring to the 60th anniversary of the communist state, next month.

One industry insider in China said: "We have seen a lot more censoring in
China leading up to these events. The closing down of YouTube in March is
believed to have had something to do with the presence of Tibet-related

"With the 60th anniversary coming up, the government will want more social
stability and calm, which is perhaps why there has been more censorship.
There are certain topics which act like a trip wire."

The internet in China is already the most highly policed in the world, with
thousands of state employees paid to invigilate web chat rooms and report
disloyal comments to party officials. There is pressure on internet
companies to reveal details of their users' web use to the authorities.

Amnesty International's China researcher Corinna-Barbara Francis said:
"China is a very active suppressor of internet freedom and has a dreadful
record of arresting and imprisoning 'cyber-dissidents'.

"Google and other major media players must make it absolutely clear to the
Chinese authorities that they will not agree to censorship or to handing
over users personal data that could lead to their imprisonment for peaceful
political activity."

The company's co-founder, Sergey Brin, was reported yesterday still to be
troubled by the company's involvement in censorship, which began when it did
its original deal with Chinese authorities.

When the international search engine first launched in 2000, it
quickly attracted market share among China's white collar elite, but it was
not long before the US giant fell foul of the Great Firewall of China.

Within two years it was effectively frozen out of the Chinese market, by
censors who could ensure Google searches took seven times longer than those
on domestic engines - in particular, the main provider,

In 2005, Google responded by hiring Mr Lee from Microsoft to launch the
bespoke "Chinese" Google search engine

Last night, John Pinette, Google's director of communications in Asia,
conceded that the company had faced a difficult dilemma in signing up to
China's terms.

"It was not an easy decision for us to set up our domain as we
knew a lot of content would be filtered," he said.

The impact of that was now clear, he added. "There are certain topics to
which the People's Republic [of China] would have objections, such as Tibet,
the Dalai Lama and Tiananmen Square. All of these deliver fewer results on than"

In recent weeks, has been running slower than domestic sites,
ceding vital competitive advantage to its main rival Google's
share of the market has now dropped to below 30 per cent, while Baidu has
exceeded 60 per cent, according to latest research.

Yet some business analysts accuse the internet giant of bending too far in
response to Government threats.

Isaac Mao, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and
Society said last night: "Google has been too compliant to the Chinese
government. It should be more independent-minded and less concerned with
short-term results."

With the Chinese internet growing at 30 per cent a year, and more than 350
million users now online, Google is not in a hurry to turn its back on what
may one day be the world's largest online market. It has already named two
executives who will divide and take over the key aspects pf Mr Lee's job.

But senior figures do admit that the relationship with the communist state
may take time to stabilise.

Mr Pinette quoted Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive, who once summed up
a perspective that seems remarkable for a company that began from nothing in

"China has 5,000 years of history and Google has 5,000 years of patience
when it comes to China," he said. "We are in this for the long term."
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