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China puts new limits on Google search results

Restrictions mount as the company redirects users to its Hong Kong website.

March 24, 2010|By Jessica Guynn and David Pierson

Reporting from San Francisco and Beijing — Chinese access to Google's search engine grew more restricted, with some sensitive searches blocked altogether, Tuesday as fallout from its decision to redirect mainland users to its uncensored Hong Kong website threatened to undermine the Internet giant's ability to cling to its hard-won Chinese market share.

The move was already reverberating across the Pacific. Google said Tuesday that it would delay rolling out in China mobile applications that run on Android phones after its Chinese partners came under government pressure to pull out of deals with Google.

Chinese Internet and mobile-services provider Tom Online, run by one of Asia's wealthiest businessmen, Li Ka-shing, also announced it would stop using Google's search engine.

With the latest transpacific row, it was unclear whether the Hong Kong site would be blocked or whether Google would be allowed to continue its other operations and partnerships with Chinese companies such as state-owned telecommunications carrier China Mobile Ltd.

"The Chinese will look for ways to squeeze Google across the board," said James Lewis, a technology expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.

Google said Monday that it hoped to keep a sales team, research and development operations and a burgeoning stake in mobile phones in China. Analysts say the attempt at business as usual underscores how dearly the company still wants to succeed in the world's largest Internet and cellphone market while taking a stand against government censorship.

It's a tightrope act, with Google leaving the Chinese market without leaving China and complying with Chinese law while trying to undermine it, said Douglas Paal, vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a senior advisor on Asian affairs in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

"Google wants to have its cake and eat it too," said Duncan Clark, chairman of research firm BDA China Ltd.

So far, the dispute between the technology giant that wants to spread information and the government that wants to limit it is not spilling over into already strained diplomatic relations between China and the United States. The Obama administration's subdued comments echoed the tone of the Chinese government.

National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer said Google had informed the White House of its plans and expressed disappointment that Google and Beijing had been unable to reach a deal.

"The U.S.-China relationship is mature enough to sustain differences," Hammer said.

But tensions have escalated in relations between Google and China, Benchmark Capital analyst Clayton Moran said.

"I am a little surprised that Google didn't voluntarily shut down to have a more diplomatic exit. That in my mind might have helped them in their efforts to keep the other operations going. It appears to me that both sides are taking a pretty hard stance," Moran said.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday that Beijing should consider the implications of one of the world's most recognizable institutions deciding it's too difficult to do business in China.

Google's Hong Kong site features a simplified form of Chinese characters used in mainland China. It also has maintained products it had on its Chinese site, such as legal music downloads and partnerships with leading online forums.

Experts say Google's Chinese website can earn a profit if it proves to advertisers that a migration to Hong Kong servers does not cost the company users.

The search engine also can count on Chinese advertisers who target Google.com. An estimated 40% of Google's ad revenue in China is generated by the American site.

Hong Kong, a former British territory, belongs to China but has separate laws that allow Google to operate an uncensored search engine. Those accessing the site in China are subject to Web content filters, better known as the Great Firewall, that will block connections to sensitive sites.

Earlier Tuesday, searches for sensitive terms such as the banned spiritual group Falun Gong netted results that would have been blocked on Google's old site. Though they couldn't be opened, they provided a glimpse at what sort of uncensored material was available. By the evening, the same search immediately resulted in an error message, suggesting government censors had adapted to the change.

Google also hopes Android can reap benefits for the company in China's rapidly expanding smart-phone market. The company was hoping to use the software to dominate mobile Internet searches and also sell a slew of cellphone applications, much like Apple Inc.'s iPhone.

"Android's share is not significant now, but the opportunity is enormous in a country with over 800 million mobile subscribers," said Kaiser Kuo, a Beijing-based technology expert.

Experts say a decision from the government will not come easily or swiftly.

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