China partially blocks Google's Hong Kong site

China partially blocks Google's Hong Kong site

A  reflection of Google logo is seen in a woman’s glasses in front of its China headquarters in Beijing on Tuesday. REUTERS

As Google began redirecting tens of millions of Chinese users on Tuesday to its uncensored Web site in Hong Kong, the company’s remaining mainland operations came under pressure from its Chinese partners and from the government itself.

The Chinese government moved on Tuesday to block access to the Hong Kong site, the use of which Google had hoped would allow it to keep its pledge to end censorship while retaining a share of China’s fast-growing internet search market.

But mainland Chinese users on Tuesday could not see the uncensored Hong Kong content because government computers either blocked the content or filtered links to searches for objectionable content before it reached them.

There were other signs of possible escalation on Tuesday.

China’s biggest cellular communications company, China Mobile, was expected to cancel a deal that had placed Google’s search engine on its mobile internet home page, used by millions of people daily. Businessmen close to industry officials said the company was planning to scrap the deal under government pressure despite the fact that it has yet to find a replacement.

Similarly, China’s second-largest mobile company, China Unicom, was said by analysts and others to have delayed or killed the imminent start of a cellphone based on Google’s Android platform.

Both technology analysts and the businessmen, who demanded anonymity for fear of retaliation, said that Google may also face problems in keeping its advertising-sales force, which is crucial to the success of its Chinese-language service.

Total shutdown?

Several held out the prospect that the government could shut down the company’s Chinese search service entirely by blocking access to Google’s mainland address, google.cn, or to its Hong Kong Web site. As of Tuesday, users who go to google.cn are automatically being sent to the Hong Kong address.

“It’s going to boil down to whether authorities feel it is acceptable for users to be redirected to that site without having to figure it out themselves,” said Mark Natkin, managing director of Marbridge Consulting, a Beijing-based technology research firm. At the same time, Natkin said that government might still be wary of agitating a loyal Google user base in China that tends to be highly educated and vocal. “To block Google entirely is not necessarily a desirable outcome for the government,” he said.

Xinhua, the state-controlled news agency quoted an unidentified official with the State Council Information Office on Tuesday who described the move by Google as “totally wrong.”

“Google has violated its written promise it made when entering the Chinese market by stopping filtering its searching service and blaming China in insinuation for alleged hacker attacks,” the official said.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that the government would handle the Google case “according to the law,” Reuters reported. The ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said at a briefing in Beijing that the move by Google was an isolated act by a commercial company and that it should not affect ties between Beijing and the US “unless politicized” by others.

At Google’s office in northern Beijing on Tuesday, a few Chinese passers-by laid flowers or chocolates on the large metal “Google” sign outside, AP reported.

Zhou Shuguang, a blogger who uses the online name “Zuolam” said, “I welcome the move and support Google because an uncensored search engine is something that I need.”

The two sides had been at loggerheads since early January, when Google said it would end the voluntary censorship of its China-based search service in response to attacks by China-based hackers on its e-mail service and its corporate database.

Two months of sporadic talks failed to bridge the divide between Google and the Chinese government, which insists that its citizens’ access to the internet be stripped of offensive and some politically sensitive material.

Viable compromise

Google declined to comment on its talks but said that it was under the impression that the move to the Hong Kong site would be seen as a viable compromise.

“We got reasonable indications that this was OK,” Sergey Brin, a Google founder and its president of technology, said. “We can’t be completely confident.”

For now, Google’s retreat from mainland China is only partial. In a blog post, Google said it would retain much of its existing operations on the mainland, including its research and development team and its local sales force.

“Figuring out how to make good on our promise to stop censoring search on google.cn has been hard,” David Drummond, chief legal officer at Google, wrote in the blog post.

“The Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self- censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement.” Drummond said that Google’s search engine in Hong Kong would provide mainland users with results in the simplified Chinese characters that are used on the mainland and that he believed it was “entirely legal.” Google’s decision to scale back operations on the mainland ends a nearly four-year bet that its search engine, even if censored, would help bring more information to Chinese citizens and loosen government controls on the Web.

Instead, specialists say, the Beijing authorities have tightened their grip on the internet. In January, Google said it would no longer cooperate with government censors after hackers based on the mainland stole some of the company’s source code and broke into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights advocates.

“It is certainly a historic moment,” said Xiao Qiang of the China Internet project at the University of California, Berkeley. “The internet was seen as a catalyst for China being more integrated into the world. The fact that Google cannot exist in China clearly indicates that China’s path as a rising power is going in a direction different from what the world expected and what many Chinese were hoping for.”

While other multinational companies are not expected to follow suit, some Western executives say Google’s decision is a symbol of a worsening business climate on the mainland for foreign corporations and perhaps an indication that the Chinese government is favoring home-grown companies. Despite its size and reputation for innovation, Google trails its main Chinese rival, Baidu.com, which was modeled on Google, with 33 per cent market share to Baidu’s 63 per cent.

The decision to shut down google.cn will have a limited financial impact on Google.  Mainland China accounted for a small fraction of Google’s $23.6 billion in global revenue last year. Ads that once appeared on google.cn will now appear on Google’s Hong Kong site. Still, abandoning a direct presence in the largest internet search market in the world could have long-term repercussions and thwart Google’s global ambitions, analysts say.
The recent hacker attacks were aimed at Google and more than 30 other US companies. While Google did not say the attacks had been sponsored by the government, the company said it had enough information about the attacks to justify its threat to leave the mainland.

The New York Times

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