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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 January 2006, 14:42 GMT
Google faces China challenges
By Jane Wakefield
Technology reporter, BBC News website

Google's headquarters
Google will face questions over its decision
Google's decision to launch a censored version of its search engine in China has reignited the debate about how businesses conduct themselves in oppressive regimes.

China - with its population of 1.3bn - is an incredibly attractive marketplace for both off and online businesses but its strict rules about what information citizens can access, present companies setting up shop there with a moral dilemma.

In order to run a locally-based internet business, companies must sign an agreement to censor themselves - something which Google has resisted doing until now.

This has put it at a disadvantage compared to rivals such as Yahoo - which has been complying with the Chinese censors for the past three years.

Agreeing to block access to websites making reference to material which the Chinese government regards as sensitive - such as democratic reform and Taiwanese independence - will speed up the site - currently slowed down by Chinese-imposed filters - and offer Google a greater foothold in the burgeoning Chinese market.

No to e-mail

Person using Google's search engine
Search is set to explode in China

Google has acknowledged that its decision to launch in China will be seen as inconsistent with its mission to make information universally accessible but believes it has little choice.

"We don't want to risk becoming irrelevant or useless due to the way that our content is blocked or filtered currently," Google's senior policy adviser Andrew McLaughlin told the BBC Radio Four's Today programme.

"We feel it is a step forward. Not a big step forward but a step forward. We understand that many people will find the decision either puzzling or objectionable," he said.

Google is hoping to avoid some of the criticism Yahoo has attracted, particularly for the part it played in passing on e-mail data to the authorities which resulted in a Chinese journalist being jailed for ten years.

Google has said that it will not introduce e-mail or blogging services in China until it can strike a balance between user safety and local laws.

It also claims that it will inform users if the content they access via its search engine has been censored, something that other search firms based in China do not do.

Don't be evil

Freedom of expression isn't a minor principle that can be pushed aside when dealing with a dictatorship
Julien Pain, Reporters Without Borders

Critics believe gaining market share in China has been Google's primary motivation for its change of heart and it is true that the firm has been losing ground to a Beijing-based web search firm, Baidu.com, in which Google owns a 3% share.

Internet search users in China are predicted to increase from about 100 million currently to 187 million in two years' time.

Rebecca Mackinnon, research fellow at the Berkman Center on Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, thinks it is time the company look again at its mission statement.

"They have taken a step away from their motto of 'don't be evil'. What is interesting is that it now seems to be 'don't be any more evil than necessary'" she told the Today programme.

The fact that Google has recently refused to hand over data on what people are searching for to the US Department of Justice has led critics to accuse it of operating double standards.

The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders says Google is being hypocritical and described the launch of Google.cn as "a black day for freedom of expression in China".

"Like its competitors, the company says it has no choice and must obey Chinese laws, but this is a tired argument," said Julien Pain, head of Reporters Without Borders' internet freedom desk.

"Freedom of expression isn't a minor principle that can be pushed aside when dealing with a dictatorship. US firms continue to justify themselves by saying their presence has a long-term benefit yet the internet in China is becoming more and more isolated from the outside world and freedom of expression there is shrinking," he said.

Of course as Chinese web users become more sophisticated they will increasingly find ways to avoid the censors.

Already bloggers use servers based outside China to avoid monitoring and government filters are circumvented by changing the spelling of banned words or using code.

But the fact that outside web firms are prepared to remain in cahoots with the authorities is not helping the web community, said Mr Pain.

He called on the big names that have a presence in China - Microsoft, Yahoo and now Google - to get together and make a stand for the freedoms they are so keen to protect in the west.

See Google's new Chinese website in action

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