Google Adds Feature to Help China Searchers
Beijing. Google has fired a new salvo in a censorship battle with Beijing by adding a feature that suggests alternatives for search terms that might result in blocked results.
Google’s announcement Thursday did not mention of Beijing’s extensive Internet controls. But it comes after filters were tightened so severely in recent weeks that searches fail for some restaurants, universities or tourist information. Authorities were aiming to stamp out talk about an embarrassing scandal over the fall of a rising Communist Party star.
Google closed its China-based search engine in 2010 to avoid cooperating with government censorship. Mainland users can see its Chinese-language site in Hong Kong but the connection breaks if they search for sensitive terms.
The new feature will alert users in China if they type in a search term that “may temporarily break your connection to Google” and suggest alternative terms, Google said in a blog post signed by a senior vice president, Alan Eustace.
“By prompting people to revise their queries, we hope to reduce these disruptions and improve our user experience from mainland China,” Eustace wrote.
Google cited as an example the Chinese character “jiang,” or river, without mentioning that it also is the name of former President Jiang Zemin, the possible reason the government blocks search results. It says the site will recommend users in China write their search terms without that character.
A Google spokesman in Tokyo, Taj Meadows, declined to comment on reasons for the feature or whether the company was concerned about Chinese government retaliation.
Google was allowed to keep a network of advertising sales offices in China that might be vulnerable if the communist government tries to punish the company.
Google, based in Mountain View, California, had 16.6 percent of China’s search market in the first quarter based on use of its global and Hong Kong sites, according to Analysys International, a Beijing research firm. It was in second place behind local rival Baidu Inc., which 78.5 percent, but ahead of other Chinese competitors.
Google is also promoting its Android mobile phone operating system for use by Chinese manufacturers. Chinese regulators approved Google’s $12.5 acquisition of Motorola Mobility, a wireless device maker, last month on condition Android remains available to Chinese companies and others at no cost for five years.
Tensions over censorship highlight Beijing’s complicated relations with global technology companies. The communist government wants to boost incomes by promoting high-tech industry but insists on controlling access to information.
Beijing promotes Internet use for education and business and has the world’s biggest population of Internet users, with 513 million people online as of December, but tries to block politically sensitive material.
The latest tightening of controls was prompted by a flurry of rumors about the downfall of Bo Xilai, a prominent politician who was party secretary of the major city of Chongqing in the southwest.
In addition to Bo’s name, searches for a wide array of terms are blocked, including Chongqing and Yangtze River, which flows past the city. That means searches for universities, hotels, restaurants or other businesses that use those names also are blocked.
China’s two most popular microblog services stopped allowing new postings for three days in early April to erase what they said were illegal or harmful postings.
Google’s engineers reviewed the 350,000 most popular search queries in China in an effort to find “disruptive queries,” the company said.
Google gave no indication when development of the latest feature started but said it received reports of unreliable searches “over the past couple of years.”