Google Inc. this week plans to launch a search service aimed at Chinese users that will block results deemed sensitive to Beijing, a decision the company struggled with before deciding it's better to provide some service than none at all.
The site, Google.cn, will block results of Internet searches deemed objectionable to Beijing, but will tell users the search has been blocked because it is politically sensitive. Pornography will also be blocked on the site, as it is in several other countries.
The move will likely irritate die-hard fans of Google's anticorporate philosophy "Don't Be Evil" and could raise protests from a growing number of organizations sensitive to free-speech issues in China.
Microsoft Corp. has been criticized for censorship in China, and Yahoo Inc. came under fire late last year for turning over e-mails to Chinese authorities that led to a 10-year prison sentence for a local journalist.
"In order to operate from China, we have removed some content from the search results available on Google.cn, in response to local law, regulation or policy," said Andrew McLaughlin, senior policy counsel at Google, in a statement. "While removing search results is inconsistent with Google's mission, providing no information -- or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information -- is more inconsistent with our mission."
A fierce internal debate took place over the issue, but the Mountain View, Calif.-based company ultimately decided to play by Beijing's rules so it could compete in the People's Republic of China, said one source.
All companies offering Internet services in China must comply with local law or face being shut off by authorities in Beijing, who also monitor data crossing international communications networks.
Google has operated a search engine aimed at users in China from the U.S. for a while, but decided to open a server center inside China to speed up searches, since Chinese government firewalls and censors mean download times from outside the huge country tend to be slow.
Google also faces stiff competition from China's No. 1 search provider, Baidu.com Inc., which displays a minimalist home page similar to Google's and launched a hugely successful public stock market offering last year, filling its corporate war chest with funds to use in the battle against encroaching U.S. Internet giants.
Google is rolling out the service, so some of it is still run from servers outside of China, and some searches appear to be blocked while others don't. Searches for some politically volatile issues, such as independence for the democratic island of Taiwan, which China regards as a renegade province and has vowed to take over, came up with nothing. But a search for "free Tibet" led to a host of links, including The Government of Tibet in Exile and a Free Tibet organization.
To balance what can often be heavy-handed censorship from Beijing, Google intends to dislose to users when information has been removed from its search results in response to local laws and regulations, as it does in other countries such as Germany, France, and the U.S. The company also plans to move slowly on introducing other services in China, such as Gmail and Blogger, to make sure it can balance the user experience with its legal responsibilities.