At lunchtime, a group of them arrived at Google’s headquarters bearing flowers, in token of their support for the search-engine giant's stand against government control of the Web.
“Respect Google for: 1) Doing what you should, even if it is not easy. 2) Protecting your heart and your clients,” read one tweet.
“There is clearly a constituency that appreciates the message that Google is sending, that it finds the Chinese government’s attitude to the Internet and censorship unacceptable,” says Rebecca MacKinnon, who is writing a book about the Chinese Web.
It was a rare display of sympathy for a company that has struggled against official and commercial pressure to make Google.cn a success in the four years since it launched.
The Chinese language search engine had a 31 percent share of the market in the third quarter of 2009, the last period for which figures are available, according to the Chinese Internet consultancy firm Analysys. The market leader, homegrown Baidu, had more than double that, with 64 percent.
Criticism from authorities
Google.cn has been winning a growing number of users, despite coming under fire from the authorities.
Three times last year the government-run China Internet Illegal Information Reporting Center issued public complaints that searches on Google.cn could turn up pornographic sites, recommending that “the relevant legal enforcement departments punish the company according to the law.”
Users have also sometimes found that when they enter a search term on Google.cn, they are mysteriously redirected to competitor Baidu.
Google’s main problem, however, appears to have been in overcoming the first-mover advantage that Baidu enjoys as the first Chinese-language search engine. Many users got used to Baidu, and saw no reason to switch.
Baidu also attracted a lot of traffic by offering free music downloads; Google.cn felt obliged to follow suit last year.
Though Google accepted censorship in order to set up its search engine in China, the company has not offered any services involving personal or confidential data, which could easily be stolen from Chinese-based servers.
There is no Chinese Gmail, for example, and Google has not extended user-generated content services into China, which could allow surveillance of participants.
If Google cannot reach an agreement with the Chinese government to run an unfiltered search engine here – as is likely – and makes good on its threat to close its Chinese business, the international Google.com website will still be available, unless the authorities block it, as they have in the past.
Few Chinese Internet users, however, speak enough English for the main site to be an attractive alternative.