Search’s China Syndrome

Everyone has Googlemania — even Congress.

Next Wednesday, the Congressional Human Rights Caucus will host a panel to discuss the Internet’s influence on human rights in China.

The briefing, chaired by Congressman Tim Ryan, will examine instances in which U.S. companies have been charged with aiding or complying with Chinese Internet censorship.

Most recently, that would be Google. This week, Google said it would censor sites available to users, as the Chinese government demanded.

On the Google Blog, Andrew McLaughlin, senior policy counsel for Google, wrote that the company created, the specialized service for for the People’s Republic of China, because of issues with within the world’s most populous nation.

“Google users in China today struggle with a service that, to be blunt, isn’t very good. appears to be down around 10 percent of the time. Even when users can reach it, the Web site is slow, and sometimes produces results that when clicked on, stall out the user’s browser. Our Google News service is never available; Google Images is accessible only half the time. At Google we work hard to create a great experience for our users, and the level of service we’ve been able to provide in China is not something we’re proud of.”

Google, red-hot in the United States, has to compete with Baidu, the “Google of China,” which is red hot with investors, too.

The company decided to solve the problem by creating a local presence, but that local presence had to conform to Chinese laws.

“In order to do so,” McLaughlin wrote, “we have agreed to remove certain sensitive information from our search results. We know that many people are upset about this decision, and frankly, we understand their point of view. This wasn’t an easy choice, but in the end, we believe the course of action we’ve chosen will prove to be the right one.”

The caucus noted that Google wasn’t the only company to cave in to foreign government demands. In 2004, Yahoo provided the personal e-mail address of a Chinese journalist, Shi Tao, to the government. Shi was sentenced to 10 years in prison for posting a copy of a government order barring Chinese media from marking the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

In late December, MSN took heat for shutting down the Spaces pages of Zhao Jing, also known as Michael Anti, at the request of the Chinese government, after he supported striking Chinese journalists.

According to the pols, Internet companies have closed down journalists’ blogs under pressure from the Chinese authorities and have self-censored their search engines and blog tools, excluding from their index those containing content related to “democracy” and “human rights in China”, “Falun Gong”, “Dalai Lama” and “Tiananmen Square.”

But there’s a good reason why it took the flap over Google censorship to rile up congress, according to Nicholas Carr, author of “Does IT Matter?”

They asked for it.

In his blog, Rough Type, Carr wrote, “As soon as the company broadcast its “Don’t Be Evil” pledge, it guaranteed that any time it stepped into ethically ambiguous territory it was going to touch off a firestorm in the press — and, in turn, draw the attention of the public and the public’s media-hungry elected representatives.”

Cisco Systems , Google , Yahoo and Microsoft have been invited to the February 1 hearing, along with representatives from Reporters Without Borders, Human Rights Watch and the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

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