Chinese Government Attacks Google Over Internet Porn

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A man surfs the Internet in Beijing

Beijing's Internet censors are on the rampage again. But this time the victims are not the country's nearly 200 million surfers but one of the most recognized names on the Web: Google.

The search giant's China operation, already struggling to compete with its domestic rivals, is the subject of a blistering and unprecedented wave of criticism by China's official media, which have singled it out as having far more links to pornographic websites than its competitors. Chinese authorities disabled some search functions on Google's China page late last week and ordered the company to block links to foreign websites.

The first sign of trouble came on June 18, when a report was released from the China Internet Illegal Information Reporting Center, a government agency, that accused Google of providing links to pornography. A story from the official Xinhua news agency soon followed alleging that an unnamed Google official had admitted that a "huge amount of porn and lewd information" had been disseminated via the search engine. The issue has also received a significant amount of news coverage on China Central Television (CCTV).

A Google spokesman told reporters the company was "continually working to deal with pornographic content and material that is harmful to children on the Web in China" and that the company would renew this effort. While it's not clear what prompted this attack, some observers see a connection with the lambasting that authorities received both domestically and overseas when news broke recently that starting July 1, all computers sold in China would be required to have pornography-filtering software pre-installed. The news caused outrage among Chinese computer users, many of whom complained that the software, called Green Dam Youth Escort, was ineffective and would expose users to viruses and hacker attacks. Meanwhile, a U.S. company, Solid Oak Software, alleged that the program had illegally incorporated parts of its proprietary software.

The attack on Google is seen by some as an attempt to divert criticism from the controversy over filtering software. "It doesn't seem like a coincidence that [the attack on Google] comes amid mounting criticism of Green Dam, whose ostensible purpose is to block porn," says Rebecca MacKinnon, a former Beijing bureau chief for CNN who is writing a book about the Internet in China. "Now they're trying to show what a bad job Google does in protecting China's children."

MacKinnon also notes that there's plenty of evidence that searches conducted on Baidu — Google's main rival in China and the company with by far the biggest share of the search-engine market — produce just as many or more links to pornographic sites.

That same point was made by many Chinese netizens, whose anger over the attack on Google dominated online forums and billboards following the June 19 airing of a program critical of Google on CCTV. China's "human-flesh search engine" — a vigilante Internet mob that discovers the identities and publishes personal details of those who displease netizens — also swung into action. The group claimed that a Beijing youth, depicted in a CCTV program as a university student who had mounted an anti-Google campaign, was actually a CCTV staff member.

Speculation that the Google attack was a method of distracting attention from the Green Dam fiasco intensified after a report emerged that Silicon Valley–based Solid Oak Software had sent cease and desist orders warning computer users not to use the Green Dam software, which it said copied parts of one of its programs.

Google and other Internet companies face major challenges operating in China, where the government strictly controls access to certain websites as well as the publication of sensitive political and social information. Websites such as YouTube and Wikipedia are routinely blocked so that Chinese users can't access them. In contrast, Chinese Internet companies commonly practice self-censorship to prevent publication of content that authorities may deem off-limits.

Some observers said the government, by attacking Google, was sending a message to all foreign websites to watch out. "Chinese search engine are the obvious beneficiaries of [the criticism of Google], and that suits the authorities fine," says an industry insider who requested anonymity. "They all take care of the political censorship themselves and obviously have to do exactly what the bureaucrats tell them. A foreign company like Google is that much harder to control."