Beijing has ordered Google to stop users of its Chinese-language service accessing overseas websites in the biggest blow to the world’s leading search engine in China since it started operating there four years ago.
In a move that could disrupt Google’s growth in China, which now has more internet users than the US, the Chinese government said it had told Google to suspend foreign searches and a feature that automatically suggests multiple search results once typing commences in the search window.
The action comes amid a storm of outrage among Chinese internet users over Beijing’s order that every new PC sold in the country be equipped with censorship software, ostensibly to block pornography. One senior US internet figure said the move against Google appeared to be an attempt to deflect attention away from the domestic censorship uproar by redirecting concerns about pornography against a foreign company.
According to state media on Friday, authorities said Google was being “punished” for linking to pornographic content.
On Thursday, in a “law enforcement talk”, the government announced that it was ordering the company to suspend foreign searches and automated keywords, according to Xinhua, the official news agency, and China Central Television, the main state broadcaster.
Searches on Google.cn were still turning up foreign websites several hours after the announcement. However, the automated keyword feature had been disabled. Google confirmed on Friday it had met government representatives on Thursday “to discuss problems with the Google.cn service and its serving of pornographic images and content based on foreign language searches”.
The company was undertaking a thorough review of its service and believed it had addressed most of the problems, it said.
Observers said the crackdown was likely to be a mixture of the government’s recent hardline approach on censorship and increasingly bitter rivalry with Baidu, a domestic search engine, which holds a 59 per cent market share.
Although the authorities accused only Google of allowing links to lurid content, similar material could be found on
China surpassed the US as the nation with the world’s largest internet population last year and has about 300m users.
The government has been clamping down on various sites for months in the name of a campaign against “vulgar” online content.
“If these restrictions are kept up for more than a few days, they will have a huge impact on Google’s business in China,” said Edward Yu, chief executive of Analysys, an internet research company in Beijing.
“Traffic will drop quickly because users will find it extremely cumbersome to search without automated keywords and will feel they cannot find results they are looking for, such as foreign travel and shopping information.”
Google has been growing aggressively in China over the past year and its market share exceeded 30 per cent for the first time in the first quarter of this year, according to Analysys research.
20 Jun 2009 12:02am
By Kathrin Hille in Beijing
Source: The Financial Times