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Google wakes up, sees evil in China

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  • Published 14.01.10
  • a few seconds read

San Francisco, Jan. 13: Google will stop censoring its search results in China and consider pulling out of the country completely after discovering that computer hackers had tricked human rights activists into exposing their email accounts to outsiders.

The move, if followed through, would be a highly unusual rebuke of China by one of the largest technology companies, which had for years coveted China’s 300 million Web users.

The professed change of heart heralds a sweeping shift for the Internet’s search leader, which has repeatedly said it will obey Chinese laws requiring some politically and socially sensitive issues to be blocked from search results available in other countries.

The acquiescence had outraged free-speech advocates and even some shareholders, who argued Google’s co-operation with China violated the company’s “don’t be evil” motto.

But the tipping point didn’t come until Google recently uncovered hacking attacks launched from within China. The apparent goals: breaking into the computers of at least 20 major US companies and gathering personal information about dozens of human rights activists trying to shine a light on China’s alleged abuses.

Google spokesperson Matt Furman declined to say whether the company suspected the Chinese government might have had a hand in the attacks.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton said the Google allegations “raise very serious concerns and questions” and America was seeking an explanation from the Chinese government.

It’s “an incredibly significant move”, said Danny ’Brien, international outreach co-ordinator at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet rights group in San Francisco. “This changes the game because the question won’t be ‘How can we work in China?’ but ‘How can we create services that Chinese people can use, from outside of China?’”

Google’s threat is a rare display of defiance in a system where foreign companies have long accepted intrusive controls to gain access to a huge market. Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and others have acceded to pressure to block access to politically sensitive material.

Many websites based outside China, including Google’s YouTube video site, are regularly blocked by the government. In China, search requests that include words like “Tiananmen Square massacre” or “Dalai Lama” come up blank.

Google officials plan to talk to the Chinese government to determine if there is a way the company can still provide unfiltered search results in the country. If an agreement can’t be worked out, Google suggested it was prepared to leave China four years after creating a search engine bearing China’s Web suffix, “.cn”.

Abandoning China will not put a big dent in Google’s earnings, although it could crimp the company’s growth. China’s Internet audience already has soared from 10 million to nearly 340 million in the past decade.

Google said its Chinese operations account for an “immaterial” amount of its roughly $22 billion in annual revenue. Some analysts put Google’s China revenue at $600 million a year.

Although Google’s search engine is the most popular worldwide, it’s a distant second in China, where the homegrown processes more than 60 per cent of all requests.