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Google caves to China's censors

Internet server stymies flow of information

WASHINGTON -- This is an open letter to Larry Page, co-founder of Google.

Dear Larry:

First of all, congratulations. You may remember getting quickly to a first-name basis with me when the two of us were seated together in early 2000, perhaps because of our identical surnames, at a conference for up-and-coming business innovators in New York. I was just a visiting journalist. You obviously have come up. Way up.

And, because I never had a chance to say thanks, thanks. When you heard that I had not heard of your Internet search engine, with its funny-sounding name, you gave me your card and told me to type in "google.com" the next time I interfaced with a computer. "It will change your life," you said. How right you were. In fact, you and your co-founder Sergey Brin are changing the world. Within years, you achieved one of the highest honors in Western civilization: You became a verb. To "google" is now synonymous with the act of making a high-speed Web search.

Not bad for an idea that, as you recounted, began as a student project at Stanford University. If anyone demonstrates the value of staying awake in class, it is you fellows.

That said, I was disappointed to hear that Google, in its rapidly advancing quest for world dominance, had caved in once again to China's censorship policies and practices.

During a question-and-answer session with reporters in Beijing last week, Google Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt said he had no plans to lobby the Chinese government to loosen its handcuffs on Internet searches, implying that such an objection would be ill-mannered to your Chinese hosts.

"I think it's arrogant for us to walk into a country where we are just beginning operations and tell that country how to run itself," he said. I say, Why not? It's not as if no one ever tried to tell China how to run itself before.

You knew what Google was walking into before you walked into it. Your company and your fellow Internet giants--Microsoft, Yahoo and Cisco Systems--faced withering criticism during a congressional hearing in February.

Microsoft cooperates in censoring or deleting blogs that offend the Chinese government's sensibilities. Cisco provides the hardware that gives China the best Internet-blocking and user-tracking technology on the planet, human-rights experts say. Yahoo has acknowledged that it provided information that led to the 10-year imprisonment of one of its customers, a Chinese journalist. Yahoo executives told Congress that the company did not know that its cooperation would lead to the arrest of one of its users. Now everybody knows. What will the industry do about it? Apparently not much, without pressure.

I was encouraged to hear that Schmidt said the company's China strategy was a hotly debated internal issue. And, at least, Google's not as deep into China's hip pockets as the other companies. Not yet, anyway.

Unfortunately, Google's Chinese version actually has to have its amazing speed slowed down in order to comply with China's blocking of search-words like "Tibet," "Falun Gong" and even "democracy." China's government has converted your invention, which is one of the world's greatest educational tools, into a weapon of propaganda.

"Tank Man," PBS' recent "Frontline" documentary about the upcoming 17th anniversary of Tiananmen Square uprising (viewable on PBS' Web site) offered a stunning example: Four of the smartest students in China's premier university could not identify a photo of the historic face-off between a brave man and a Chinese tank on live television on June 3, 1989, during the Tiananmen Square uprising. That's how thoroughly China's government sanitizes history through Google--or "Gu Ge," your new brand name for your domestic Chinese service.

In the long run, China's appetite for dollars probably will move it to free the Web, if only to maximize productivity and profits. But, in the short run, its government is using the Web as it uses just about everything else, to perpetuate its power, ban criticism of its internal corruption and avoid accountability to the public.

For now, at least, Google is holding off on blogging and e-mail services so it won't get into conflicts as deep as those of its competitors. You still have the power of your brand name and technological superiority to stand up to China's government censors. I'm still waiting to see if you have the courage--or whether you need help from Congress to give it to you.
Google caves to China's censors - Sunday, April 16, 2006 -

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