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Google tries to route users around Chinese censors

March 22, 2010 | 12:44 pm

With negotiations at an impasse in the high-profile showdown that has escalated tensions between China and the United States, Google Inc. has begun to redirect users of its Chinese-language search engine to uncensored results on its Chinese-language service based in Hong Kong.

The Internet giant said it will maintain other operations in the country, part of its bid to continue to operate in the fast-growing Internet market in the world’s most populous country while not backing down from its pledge to end censorship.

The Chinese government was not forewarned about the move. It could block people on China’s mainland from connecting with the Hong Kong service. Google said users would probably see some slowdown in service because of the added load on Hong Kong servers.

“Figuring out how to make good on our promise to stop censoring search on Google.cn has been hard. We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainland China, yet the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement,” David Drummond, Google’s senior vice president of corporate development and chief legal officer, said in a blog post. “We believe this new approach of providing uncensored search in simplified Chinese from Google.com.hk is a sensible solution to the challenges we've faced. It's entirely legal and will meaningfully increase access to information for people in China.”

The unusual public spat has captivated the business world. Google rebuked China 2 1/2 months ago when it pledged to stop censoring search results on its Chinese site, Google.cn, as required by Chinese law. It cited increased restrictions on Internet freedom and a series of attempts to hack its systems from within China. Foreign companies rarely publicly challenge China’s policies or threaten to scale back or leave a market considered so crucial.

Over the weekend, Chinese state media attacked Google in editorials, saying it must obey the laws of countries where it does business. “One company’s ambition to change China’s Internet rules and legal system will only prove to be ridiculous,” the commentary said.

China, looking to avoid a populist backlash, is portraying the dispute with Google as “information imperialism.” Chinese users brought flowers to Google’s Chinese headquarters after the Jan. 12 announcement to express their dismay that Google would leave China.

Rebecca MacKinnon, an expert on Chinese censorship, wrote on her blog that the “Google China incident” as many Chinese call it, has heightened awareness of the extent of Internet censorship.

“It has sparked a lot of debate and soul searching about the extent to which their government is causing them to be isolated from the rest of the world,” MacKinnon wrote.

Heated rhetoric from government officials could signal that China plans to further restrict Internet access, isolating Chinese users from the global Internet and forcing other companies to decide whether to continue to operate in a country where government regulation and local competition have stymied so many foreign technology companies.

“It’s very clear that China is going to become more protectionist,” said Oded Shenkar, a professor of business management at Ohio State University and the author of “The Chinese Century.”

Analysts say the massive market is almost entirely dominated by Chinese players, which are more easily controlled by government officials. The Chinese government encourages Internet use for education and business, but authorities ban content they deem subversive or pornographic. Popular international websites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are blocked in China.

“Every few years the Chinese are driven to try some new kind of control. It’s a dance,” said James Lewis, a technology expert with the think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Google strayed off the playbook.”

-- Jessica Guynn

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