Google China move puts pressure on Microsoft, Yahoo

Like Google, Microsoft and Yahoo run Chinese search engines. But they are continuing to comply with censorship even after Google China has stopped. Some in Congress say US technology companies should be compelled to take a firmer stance on free speech in China.

By , Staff writer

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    Google China headquarters building in Beijing. Google is redirecting traffic from its Beijing-based search engine to its service in Hong Kong. Other tech giants, such as Microsoft and Yahoo, have not followed suit.
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The ramifications of Google China’s move to stop self-censoring Web queries in China are just beginning to surface, but the decision is already adding pressure on other US technology firms doing business with Beijing.

Members of Congress blasted Microsoft Wednesday for continuing to comply with Chinese censorship laws. In the wake of Google’s stance, GoDaddy.com, the world’s leading provider of domain names, announced it would quit registering Chinese websites.

Many technology analysts say pressure will build not only on Microsoft but also on Yahoo as both companies run Chinese Web search engines and comply with censorship requirements.

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Will Google leave China altogether?

While it’s unclear whether Google will leave China altogether or whether Beijing will block access to its Hong Kong-based site, the decision by the world’s most popular search engine to switch off its site in the world’s biggest Internet market has certainly sharpened the debate over online censorship as well as on what ideals American corporations must compromise in order to operate in China.

“It really shines a light on just how hard it is to do business in an ethical and humane way in China,” says Cynthia Wong, a staff attorney at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington. “The environment for human rights has really deteriorated in China in recent years.”

Although GoDaddy said that its decision was unrelated to Google’s situation, the two companies say they were motivated to act after China tightened its grip on the Internet.

“Our bottom line is that Go Daddy will not act as an agent of the Chinese government,” Bob Parson, president of Go Daddy, wrote in a letter published by China Digital Times.

Ms. Wong says China shows no sign of loosening its grip on digital information and is reportedly taking additional steps to extend greater controls over the mobile market.

“Google’s move is really commendable but I don’t think it will have a major impact on China’s system of filtering,” she says. If the Chinese government decides to block Internet users in mainland China from accessing Google’s Hong Kong site, however, it will further “increase the awareness around the level of censorship to the people on mainland China.”

Congress has certainly taken note. Microsoft needs “to get on the right side of human rights rather than enabling tyranny, which they’re doing right now,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R) of New Jersey at a hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China on Wednesday, according to CNN.

Microsoft continues to comply with Chinese law

In a statement, Microsoft said it would continue abiding by Chinese law. "We appreciate that different companies may make different decisions based on their own experiences and views. At Microsoft we remain committed to advancing free expression through active engagement in over 100 countries, even as we comply with the laws in every country in which we operate," the company said.

Technology analyst Rob Enderle told Computer World that he doubts many companies will give up profits to make a statement on censorship.

"This is the way that the Obama administration would like all companies to behave – put doing what is right ahead of what is financially expedient,” he said. “It would be nice if this was a trend, but with executives focused on quarterly results and the bottom line that is doubtful.”

Indeed, there is a growing momentum in Washington to compel US technology companies to take a firmer stance on free speech in China and elsewhere. At Wednesday’s congressional hearing on Internet censorship, a Google executive said the company’s services have been blocked by more than 25 governments.

“We should continue to look for effective ways to address unfair foreign trade barriers in the online world: to use trade agreements, trade tools, and trade diplomacy to promote the free flow of information on the Internet,” Alan Davidson, director of public policy for Google, told lawmakers.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois says he wants to pass a law that would “require Internet companies to take reasonable steps to protect human rights." And if they don't, he says, those companies could eventually face criminal charges.

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