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January 26, 2007 6:29 pm

Google links hitches in China to local rivals

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China’s efforts to “purify” the internet by cracking down on websites such as Google may be as much driven by protectionism as ideology, the founders of the US search engine said on Friday.

“I think a lot of these challenges and policing may be side effects of lobbying by local competitors there,” Sergey Brin, Google’s president of technology, told reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

“On a business level, that decision to enter China was a net negative based on our reputation in the rest of the world suffering,” Mr Brin added, citing the controversy over Google’s decision to censor the Chinese version of its website to comply with the authorities’ restrictions.

“I was born in the Soviet Union under communist rule. Having felt that oppression, instinctively, personally you never want to compromise,” Mr Brin said.

However, he had changed his views after finding better ways to make Google’s service available in China, where it does not store users’ personal information, and after talking to Chinese people.

“They actually feel very differently, including those who were in Tiananmen Square. [They are] really proud of what China has accomplished over the past two decades.”

Google had not made as much progress as it had hoped in the Chinese market, where it ranks second behind Baidu, Mr Brin admitted.

However, Larry Page, Google’s president of products, indicated that Google was not about to pull out of China. “I’d hate for us as a company to make what we thought was the wrong decision in China based on worrying about our reputation,” he said.

Google’s co-founders argued that it faced similar challenges outside China from discrimination by internet service providers over how their data networks could be used. Unless such networks accepted the principle of “net neutrality”, Mr Page said, there would be economic consequences.

“Ultimately we’ll pay for it in our productivity”.

It was difficult for Google to know whether networks were running slowly because of genuine faults or “because they’re supposed to be”, he added.

The comments come as Silicon Valley is stepping up its lobbying about net neutrality, with many executives trying to persuade political leaders that it should be treated as a trade issue.

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