Take stand for freedom, rights group urges Google

Human Rights In China (HRIC), a nonprofit organization, has called on Google Inc. to rethink its decision to offer a censored version of its search engine in China, telling the company it is “not too late for corporate leadership.”

HRIC compared Google’s recent launch of the Google.cn search engine to actions by Yahoo Inc. and Microsoft Corp., in which Yahoo handed over information that led to the jailing of a Chinese journalist and Microsoft censored another Chinese journalist’s blog. Both incidents were widely criticized by human rights groups and proponents of free speech.

“Rather than exercising corporate leadership, these companies and others have instead engaged in ‘a race to the bottom,’ making concessions that curtail freedom of expression and access to information in China,” HRIC said in a statement on its Web site, which does not appear when searched for using Google.cn.

To illustrate how Google has censored information using the Google.cn search engine, HRIC conducted a comparison of four Google sites: Google.com in English, Google.com in Chinese, Google.cn, and Google.com.tw, the company’s Taiwanese Web site. The group conducted searches on all four sites for a range of phrases in Chinese and English.

HRIC’s comparison found that many Web sites were not found using Google.cn to search for Chinese phrases such as “human rights in China” and “death penalty,” as well as the author and title of a recently published book on former Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. That book, Zhou Enlai’s Later Years by Gao Wenqian, is banned in China. A more diverse range of Web sites were found when searching for these titles using the other three Google Web sites, HRIC said.

Meanwhile, Google Inc. defended its decision to the U.S. House of Representatives last week to offer a censored version of its Internet search engine in China, saying access to its main search engine from within China is “often unavailable, or painfully slow.” However, independent research and anecdotal evidence from Chinese users do not appear to support all of the company’s claims.

In a Feb. 1 statement signed by Andrew McLaughlin, Google’s senior policy counsel, and sent to the U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus, Google claimed that access to its search engines outside China is “painfully slow.” That claim does not match the results of a recent study conducted by Keynote Systems Inc.

The study, which analyzed the performance in China of search engines offered by Google, Baidu.com Inc., Alibaba.com Corp., and Sohu.com Inc., found that the full-page response times — the time that it takes from when a search query is entered until the full results page has been downloaded — for all four search engines in China were “outstanding,” said Jeff Kraatz, the vice president and managing director of Keynote’s Asia-Pacific operations, during a recent interview in Beijing.

“Whether [a search engine] is being hosted here or elsewhere there was no performance decline in responsiveness,” he said.

The response times for the four search engines in China ranged from 0.35 seconds to 2.7 seconds, Kraatz said, noting that the response time for search engines in North America ranges from around 1.5 seconds to 4.5 seconds. Kraatz didn’t offer specific figures for each search engine in China, but he said Google ranked first in performance and user satisfaction among the four search engines in 11 of 13 categories.

Similarly, anecdotal evidence from users appears to discount Google’s claim that its search engines are not available to Chinese users around 10 percent of the time. Several frequent users of the search engine said the site is easily accessed from residential and business Internet connections in Beijing.

One Chinese user said access to Google’s search engine from Beijing was interrupted once or twice per week, or roughly 1 percent to 2 percent of the time. “I sometimes encounter error messages, but usually it will be okay after a couple of retries with the same keywords,” the user said.

Not all of the evidence discounts Google’s claims. A report released last year by Human Rights In China (HRIC), a nonprofit group, found that attempts to access Google’s search engine from Chinese Internet cafes during August 2005 failed around 10 percent of the time. However, the report noted that all of the Internet cafes visited as part of this study had installed monitoring software with keyword-filtration and censorship capabilities on their PCs.

In addition, while access to Google’s main search engine is widely available in China, several of the company’s other services are less accessible to users here. For example, Google’s cache function, which allows users to view a cached version of a Web site, is generally blocked in China as is the Chinese-language version of Google News. Google Images is also occasionally not accessible from within China.

The censored version of the search engine, Google.cn, makes these capabilities accessible to Chinese users, according to Google.

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