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Google braces for fallout in China
Published on: 2010-03-24
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BEIJING—Google Inc.'s decision to reroute its Chinese users to a search site in Hong Kong that the company isn't censoring was met with a mixture of resentment and confusion in China, as users, employees and partners braced for potential fallout from the move.

Chinese authorities Tuesday didn't prevent users in mainland China from reaching the Hong Kong site, Google.com.hk, but the extensive filtering mechanisms the government uses against overseas Web content blocked users within China from seeing most results for politically sensitive search terms on Google's Hong Kong site.

In addition to blocking entire Internet addresses, China also restricts Web pages containing objectionable terms. It appears to do so with filtering technology that looks for prohibited terms in Web pages, including the sites that display search-engine results. Thus, a user in China searching for, say, "1989 student protest" might be temporarily locked out of using search sites or have links to certain results blocked.

Chinese officials maintained their barrage of criticism against Google. At a regular briefing Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang dismissed the notion that the Google case had harmed China's reputation, adding, "The one whose reputation has been harmed isn't China, rather it is Google."

Google's decision was met with relief by some of its Chinese staff, who have waited in limbo since the U.S. company first vowed more than two months ago to stop obeying Chinese censorship rules.

"There is a lot of relief at having some answers, after all the speculation as to what would happen," said a Google China employee about the atmosphere at the Internet giant's Beijing office, which was heavily guarded on Tuesday to keep out a swarm of journalists.

Still, the move left a number of uncertainties, such as whether the Hong Kong site will remain accessible, whether Google will be allowed to continue to run its other Chinese operations—including advertising sales and research and development—and what impact there might be on Google's partnerships with Chinese companies such as Internet portal Sina.com and state-owned telecommunications carrier China Mobile Ltd.

"Many details need to be clarified," said Xing Ming, chief executive of Chinese online forum Tianya.cn, which uses Google search on its site and in which Google owns a stake. "There still needs to be further discussion on whether [Google] will continue cooperation with its Chinese partners, or drop out of the partnership."

A Google spokeswoman said Google will fulfill its contractual obligations to customers and partners.

A public-relations director at Sina said the company has developed its own search engine, and can use it in place of the Google search bar on its home page. China Mobile didn't respond to a request for comment.

Hong Kong-based media company TOM Group Ltd. said Tuesday its Chinese Internet unit had removed Google's search service from its portal. In a statement, TOM said, "As a Chinese company, we adhere to rules and regulations in China where we operate our businesses."

Other Google partners, including Google's advertising resellers, said they weren't contacted by Google as of Tuesday. One reseller said it appeared the ads they sold for Google.cn were showing up on Google.com.hk.

China regulates Internet content in a number of ways. Aside from requiring Chinese sites to filter their own content, authorities also block blacklisted overseas sites and use technology that detects prohibited keywords to sporadically disconnect users from Web pages that might contain them. Experts say the latter method, which works in patterns that are unpredictable for average users, has shown that China's censorship methods are sophisticated.

Some Google products, including the company's mobile Web site and its video search service, were still being censored as of Tuesday. Google spokeswoman Jessica Powell said the mobile Web site will also be redirected to Hong Kong but that the rerouting has been delayed due to technicalities.

A Google spokeswoman said the company has "a number of services" still operating on Google.cn but will be reviewing each service "on a product-by-product basis and decide how to proceed."For example, Google's free music streaming and downloading service was still provided through Google.cn as of Tuesday.

Analysts said it is unlikely Google will be allowed to continue using the Google.cn address permanently. The China Internet Network Information Center can revoke Google's permission to use Google.cn now because it sends users to a site with content that Beijing deems unlawful, they said. The network center declined to comment.

Even if Google.cn stops functioning, Chinese users could try to access the Hong Kong site. China has the ability to block the site—as it does to sites including Twitter and Google's YouTube—but some analysts say officials are likely to avoid such a step for fear of angering Google's millions of Chinese users.

Some Google fans and former employees in China criticized Google's move. "There is disappointment and I believe there's a certain level of anger as well," said one former Google China staffer who says they spoke with friends still at the company. "Google walked away from what it had decided and committed to do."

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