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Google still censoring as it tries to free itself from China’s controls

By Michael Liedtke
Associated Press / February 12, 2010

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SAN FRANCISCO - Shedding China’s shackles on free speech is proving to be easier said than done for Google Inc.

The Internet search leader is still censoring its results in China a month after Google’s leaders took a public stand against Chinese laws that require the removal of links to websites the government deems subversive or offensive.

Google won’t say how the negotiations have been going since the company issued its Jan. 12 threat to shut down its China-based search engine and possibly leave the country altogether. Google is demanding that the government tear down the so-called Great Firewall, which seeks to keep China’s citizens from finding politically sensitive information.

Google’s top lawyer, David Drummond, initially said Google would take a few weeks to meet with government officials before deciding what to do. But Google officials now say the company might parse its Chinese search results for several more months while it steers through a political and cultural minefield in search of a compromise.

Google’s willingness to keep its censored search engine running for now is a signal that Chinese leaders have not been as unyielding in private talks as they have in public statements demanding obedience of the law, said Internet analyst Colin Gillis, of BGC Financial.

“Google wants to find a way to stay there, and the Chinese government doesn’t want Google to leave because that would be a black mark on them.’’

Even so, neither side wants to be seen as backing down. Each side would have to find a way to concede without appearing to capitulate, in keeping with the Chinese custom of “face saving.’’

And both the Chinese government and Google appear to be grappling with conflicting priorities.

China’s ruling party recognizes that it needs technology innovators such as Google to help fuel economic growth, but the government fears losing control if its citizens could read and see anything they want.

The tension within Google arises from the idealism of its founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and its business-minded chief executive, Eric Schmidt. Brin and Page, who combined still own a controlling interest in Google, have never felt comfortable about censoring search results. Although he didn’t like the restrictions, either, Schmidt has always seemed more willing to do whatever it takes to stay in a lucrative market.

Gillis and other analysts doubt China will bend enough to allow a completely unfiltered search engine. If that holds true, Google insists it will eventually shut down its China-based search engine, Google.cn, even though that could cost the company billions of dollars.

As a fallback position, Google would still like to keep its engineering and sales teams in China, so it could take advantage of the country’s brainpower and have staff to place ads on other websites in China and persuade Chinese businesses to advertise on Google in the United States.