Last updated: January 25, 2006 2:46 am

Google to launch censored China service

Google is to launch a China-based version of its internet search service that will actively censor results in order to avoid angering the country’s Communist government.

The move by the search market leader to set up the website www.google.cn will fuel already fierce debate about the degree to which foreign companies are willing to bow to Beijing’s censors to operate in the fast-growing Chinese internet market.

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Google, famous for its “Don’t Be Evil” philosophy, is seeking to soften potential criticism by promising to inform Chinese users when search results are censored, something other China-based search services do not do. The decision to exclude results on sensitive topics such as democratic reform, Taiwanese independence or the banned Falun Gong movement has clearly been particularly difficult for a company dedicated to making information “universally accessible”.

“While removing search results is inconsistent with Google’s mission, providing no information [or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information] is more inconsistent with our mission,” a senior Google executive said.

Google’s China strategy contrasts sharply with its willingness to resist government fiat elsewhere. The company this month refused to comply with a US government subpoena for information on how people use its service and on the website addresses it has compiled.

Google’s overseas-based services have long suffered from the attention of Chinese internet censors, who have disrupted access to its news service and disabled its “cache” function for viewing defunct websites. Users who search on sensitive topics are often blocked temporarily from using the site.

China in 2002 briefly completely denied access to Google, and the company has since decided not to include websites that are blocked by the government in its Chinese search results. Despite such limitations, Google is easily used for non-sensitive internet searches in China and is already highly popular, with a market share second only to Baidu.com, the locally based but Nasdaq-listed rival.

However, the executive said Google found speed and access problems faced by its users in China to be “unacceptable”.

“With Google.cn, Chinese users will ultimately receive a search service that is fast, always accessible, and helps them find information both in China and from around the world,” the executive said.

While the decision actively to limit its searches will anger those who believe international companies should not co-operate with China’s censors, Google may not face criticism as fierce as that directed at US portal Yahoo and software giant Microsoft. As well as providing greater disclosure of its actions, Google says it will not offer e-mail and blogging services in China until it is “comfortable” it can protect users’ interests.

By contrast, Microsoft last year launched an MSN portal that bars use of words such as “freedom” and “democracy” in the names of blogs, a level of censorship unusual even in China.

Yahoo last year acknowledged it had assisted Chinese authorities’ prosecution of an outspoken local journalist by revealing details about his e-mail account. The US portal later transferred its China operations to Alibaba.com, the local ecommerce company, which plans to co-operate with authorities.

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