Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Google Faces Fallout In China

But mainland Chinese users on Tuesday could not see uncensored Hong Kong content because government computers had either disabled searches for objectionable content completely or blocked links to certain results.

Beijing officials were clearly angered Tuesday by Google’s decision to close its Internet search service in China and redirect users to the Hong Kong site, a move that focused global attention on the government’s censorship policies, and there were signs of possible escalation in the dispute.

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. In interviews, business executives close to industry officials said the company was planning to scrap the deal under government pressure, despite the fact that China Mobile has yet to contract with a replacement.

Similarly, China’s second-largest mobile company, China Unicom, was said by analysts and others to have delayed or killed the imminent introduction of a cellphone based on Google’s Android platform. One major Internet portal, Tom.com, already had ceased using Google to power its search engine.

Technology analysts and the business executives, who demanded anonymity for fear of retaliation, said that Google might also face problems in keeping its advertising sales force, which is crucial to the success of its Chinese language service.

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, google.com.hk.

“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, Mr. Natkin said that the government might still be wary of agitating loyal Google users in China, who tend to be highly educated and vocal. “To block Google entirely is not necessarily a desirable outcome for the government,” he said.

In northern Beijing on Tuesday, a few Chinese passers-by laid flowers or chocolates on the large metal “Google” sign outside Google’s office building, The Associated Press reported.

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 Chinese 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.

The government denounced Google on Tuesday, calling its decision “totally wrong,” and the state-run news media accused Google of politicizing the Internet by trying to foist Western content on Chinese users.

One Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that China now speaks of Internet freedom in the context of one of its “core interests” — issues of sovereignty on which Beijing will brook no intervention. The most commonly cited core issues are Taiwan and Tibet. The addition of Internet freedom is an indication that the issue has taken on nationalistic overtones.

Google said in a blog posting Tuesday that Chinese officials had never wavered in negotiations from their insistence that Google censor its search results.

The Beijing business magazine Caijing reported last week that Google had employed Brent Scowcroft, President George H. W. Bush’s national security adviser, to ask the Chinese for direct talks in January. Chinese officials said on Tuesday that the two sides held two face-to-face meetings in January and February, and Caijing reported that the second meeting went poorly.

One Chinese businessman said in an interview on Monday that talks “broke down completely” at the end.

Google executives decided by Monday evening to keep the firm’s non-search business operations on mainland China intact, a Western official briefed on the discussions said. Google’s decision to redirect Chinese search requests to Hong Kong — rather than scrap the Chinese service entirely — apparently was made final only on Monday
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