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Google shuts up shop in China in row over state censorship

March 23, 2010

The Times,  March 23, 2010
Mike Harvey, San Francisco and Jane Macartney, Beijing

China hit back at Google last night after the internet search giant closed
its flagship Chinese site, carrying out a threat issued two months ago in a
dispute over censorship.

The company stopped censoring its search results in China and redirected
users of the Google.cn service to its uncensored Google.com.hk site based in
Hong Kong. The White House, which had backed Google in its dispute,
expressed "disappointment" that an American company felt compelled to take
such a drastic step.

Beijing isssued a furious riposte to Google, accusing it of violating the
terms of the agreement it made when it opened its self-censored Chinese
search engine in 2006. An official in charge of the Internet Bureau of the
State Council Information Office said: "This is totally wrong. We're
uncompromisingly opposed to the politicisation of commercial issues, and
express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable
accusations and conducts."

The world's largest internet company has been in talks for two months with
Beijing over its threat to shut down its Chinese-language search engine and
close its offices, rather than kowtow to government censors. It delivered
the ultimatum after alleged cyber attacks aimed at its source code and at
the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. The company said the
attacks originated in China.

Google hoped it would be able to deliver uncensored search results to
Chinese users via its servers in Hong Kong, which, although part of China,
enjoys a degree of autonomy within the "one country, two systems" framework.

But it seemed clear last night that China's communist authorities have the
power and the technology to block any data reaching the mainland.

The "Great Firewall of China" was as efficient as ever, as The Times
established this morning when logging on to the search engine in Beijing.
When trying to search for sensitive topics, such as "Dalai Lama" and
"Tiananmen Square Massacre", a message flashed up saying that the page could
not be displayed. The computer then froze.

Google stopped short of pulling out of China altogether, saying that it
wanted to keep its research and development staff and sales teams there. The
compromise reflects the importance to the company of retaining a presence in
the world's largest market of nearly 400 million web users.

In a blog post David Drummond, Google's chief legal officer, said: "The
Chinese Government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that
self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement. We believe this
approach of providing uncensored search in simplified Chinese from
Google.com.hk is a sensible solution to the challenges we've faced. It is
entirely legal."

The company hopes that many of its web services can survive, including its
Beijing research centre, advertising offices and mobile phone and browser
businesses. It also has a popular music search business and a version of
Google Answers. The company has 700 software engineers and sales staff at
three locations in China.

Google's tussle with the communist authorities has become an irritant in
Sino-US relations, already soured by spats over Taiwan, Tibet and the value
of the Chinese currency. Washington is studying whether it can legally
challenge Chinese internet restrictions.

Chinese activists outside China and human rights groups welcomed Google's
stance. The effective closure of the site is likely to have limited
immediate impact on the company's $24 billion annual revenue. It is thought
that the bulk of its estimated $300 million revenues in China in 2009 came
from export-oriented companies it hopes will continue to advertise via the
Hong Kong site. Google wants to retain a toehold and plans to expand its
Android operating system for mobile phones.
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