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Google's China Problem

Across the Pacific, American technology companies are being criticized for helping the Chinese government police the Web. These companies argue even with restrictions, their presence in China offers its citizens access to more information than they would otherwise have.

By Howard W French | April 3, 2006

U.S. technology companies come under fire for helping China police the Internet.
 
AN IMAGE SEARCH for "Tiananmen Square" on Google's new Chinese platform yields very different results from the same search on Google.com.

China's Internet censors are hard at work these days, shutting down blogs the government doesn't like and filtering Web sites and e-mail messages for banned words and phrases like "democracy" and "free Tibet." It's all part of an effort by China's government to tighten control over what it calls "propaganda."

Across the Pacific, American technology companies are being criticized for helping the Chinese government police the Web: Yahoo provided information about its users' e-mail accounts that helped the authorities convict dissidents, according to Chinese lawyers. In December, Microsoft closed a popular blog by an outspoken Chinese journalist known for his comments about restrictions on the press. Cisco Systems has supplied equipment that helps Beijing control Web access, and Google ensures that search results on its new Chinese platform, Google.cn, do not include material that the government does not want its people to see.

These companies argue that even with restrictions, their presence in China offers its citizens access to more information than they would otherwise have. "While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission," a senior executive at Google says, "providing no information, or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information, is more inconsistent with our mission."

TIANANMEN SQUARE

In some instances, the manipulations are fairly subtle. Students searching for "Republic of China" on Google.cn would find information about the period from 1912 to 1949, when the mainland was called Republic of China and the Communists under Mao Zedong had not yet seized power. The same search done in the U.S. on Google.com provides links to sites in Taiwan, which still formally goes by the name Republic of China. (In 1949, following the Communists' victory, 2 million Nationalists led by Chiang Kai-shek fled to Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province.)

In other cases, the omissions are glaring. Searches for "Tiananmen Square" on Google.com produce pictures of a man blocking a column of tanks-the iconic image of the 1989 student protests calling for democracy, and the violent crackdown in which the Chinese army gunned down several hundred civilians. Google.cn features soldiers raising the national flag and tourists taking snapshots.

'GREAT FIREWALL'

Although Google.com is still available in China, it produces links that cannot be opened inside what has become known as the "Great Firewall."

Google says that Google.cn is faster and serves its users better. The company puts a disclosure of censorship at the bottom of Web pages: "In order to follow local laws, some search results are not displayed." Critics say aiding China's censorship violates Google's motto, "Don't Be Evil." They say the company has lent its expertise to blocking information on religion, politics, and history that the Communist Party feels might undermine its power.

"Doing the bidding of the Chinese government like this is like doing the bidding of Stalin or Hitler," says Yu Jie, a dissident writer based in Beijing.

On February 15, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Cisco were criticized at a human-rights hearing conducted by a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee. Congressman Tom Lantos of California, the only Holocaust survivor in Congress, also compared the companies' activities to those of firms that aided Hitler and the Nazis. "Are you ashamed?" he asked executives from the four companies.

Jack Krumholtz, a lawyer for Microsoft, told the subcommittee that since the company started its MSN Spaces service in China last May, more than 3.5 million Chinese had used it to create Web sites and blogs. "There's more opportunity for communication and freedom of expression as a result of our services... and we expect that trend to continue," Krumholz said.

Google.cn does not offer e-mail or the capability to create blogs. Some users complain that the search engine doesn't reveal what the censors are hiding, only that something is being censored. "It was one thing when you hit on links that did not work. You could see what was blocked," said Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident. "The new Google hides the hand of the censor."

HARDER TO CONTROL?

But the censors may have an increasingly difficult job. "Hacktivists" in the U.S. are finding ways to help China's Internet users access restricted information. For example, Bill Xia-a Chinese immigrant living in North Carolinadeveloped Freegate, a program that connects computers in China to servers in the U.S.

"Symbolically, the government may have scored a victory with Google," says Xiao Qiang, leader of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley. "But Web users are becoming a lot more savvy and sophisticated, and the censors' life is not getting easier."

BACKGROUND

The article presents an important debate in the Internet age: Should companies like Google agree to work with oppressive governments, in the hope that the spread of information eventually empowers citizens? Or should they disengage, sacrificing revenue and perhaps the chance to foster democratic values?

1. The Chinese government considers Internet information it doesn't like as
a foreign interference.
b propaganda,
c American morality.
d anti-China slander.

2. American search-engine companies operating in China have engaged in all of the following activities except
a selling China's government equipment that aids in restricting access to Web sites.
b providing information about their users' e-mail accounts.
c shutting down a blog that offended Chinese authorities.
d helping decide which Web sites are offensive.

3. "Google's China Problem" identifies two omissions in the Chinese version of Google. One is the removal of photos of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The other, more subtle, manipulation relates to
a Taiwan.
b China's relations with the United States
c China's role in World War II.
d China's trade with the non-Communist world.

4. Critics say China censors certain types of information because much of the information in question
a is false or misleading.
b comes from foreign sources.
c might undermine the Communist Party's power.
d offends Chinese cultural and moral values.

5. Briefly describe how executives of the search-engine companies mentioned in the article defend their business activities in China.

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