Saying that providing some information is better than providing no information, Google Inc. today defended its decision to cooperate with China's demand to censor some Web search results.
The company agreed to block some sites that cover human rights, Tibet and other topics Beijing doesn't want the citizens of this communist nation to research.
Google.cn will "provide meaningful benefits to Chinese Internet users," said Google senior policy counsel Andrew McLaughlin, referring to the company's new China site.
In the past, Google's global search engine site, Google.com, had often been off-limits inside China. Technology experts suspected that the Chinese government blocked it.
"While removing search results inconsistent with Google's mission," McLaughlin said in a statement, "providing no information -- or a heavily degraded user experience that amounts to no information -- is more inconsistent with our mission."
China currently has an estimated 100 million Web users. That number is projected to rise to 187 million over the next two years.
The controversy over Google's decision underscores the ongoing tensions between Internet tools that increase computer users' access to information and the efforts of totalitarian and repressive regimes around the world to limit that access. Yahoo! and Microsoft also cooperate with China's censorship policy, as do some manufacturers of Internet servers, to gain access to a market of 1.3 billion people and a booming economy that is the world's fourth largest.
Last year, Yahoo! turned over to the Chinese government information about a Chinese journalist's e-mail account. The journalist was later convicted of violating state secrecy laws.
Google is currently resisting a U.S. Justice Department subpoena that seeks data from search results related to child pornography.
China has long been wary of the Internet's power to give average citizens information. Nearly 20,000 Web sites available in the United States became unavailable in China, according to a 2002 study by Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. They included news sites like the BBC and The Washington Post, sites based in Taiwan and Tibet, and sites that published information about health conditions in China.
When researchers searched the words "democracy" and "China" on Google.com, 40 of the top 100 sites returned were found to be blocked. Similar results emerged from searches for "freedom china" and "justice china."
Today a search on Google.com for "Falun Gong," a spiritual movement banned by the Chinese government, returned a Web site run by followers of the sect. That Web site was not listed in an identical search on Google.cn, according to The Associated Press. The results noted that some information had been deleted from the search.
Google.cn does not offer the company's e-mail product or the ability to create blogs. "As we develop a greater understanding of the Chinese market, we intend to add more products and services," Google's McLaughlin said.
Reporters Without Borders, a media watchdog group, slammed Google -- whose corporate motto is "Don't Be Evil" -- as hypocritical.
"When a search engine collaborates with the government like this, it makes it much easier for the Chinese government to control what is being said on the Internet," said Julien Pain, head of the group's Internet desk.
John Palfrey, a Harvard Law School professor and executive director of the school's Berkman Center, suggested the move was inevitable.
"The Internet has changed fundamentally," he said. "This move by Google is yet one more sort of nail in the coffin of that perfectly open Internet that some people thought was the point. Maybe that's maturation -- that's growing up."