SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA -- In an effort to protect users of its Google.cn Web site, Google is moving search records out of China and into the United States, a company executive said this week.
Google.cn is a version of the company's search engine that is hosted in China and adheres to Chinese censorship laws. It was launched in January.
The Mountain View, California, company has decided to store search records from the site outside that country, however, in order to prevent China's government from accessing the data without Google's consent, said Peter Norvig, Google's director of research, speaking at a panel discussion at Santa Clara University earlier this week. "We didn't want to be in the position of having to hand over these kinds of records to the government," he said.
Google Keeps Records
Google retains information on the search queries performed by its users, along with the Internet Protocol addresses associated with queries, to help it understand how its search engine is being used, Norvig said. IP addresses are unique numbers assigned to devices that are connected to the Internet. Google's critics worry that the information it collects could put users' privacy at risk, by allowing anyone who obtains the information to learn who has been searching for what.
The use of this data received widespread U.S. media attention after Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN division, and America Online revealed that they had provided search records to the federal government after being subpoenaed last August by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The DOJ has said that it needs the information to defend itself against a legal challenge to the Child Online Protection Act, but Google has fought its subpoena in court. Google argues that disclosing this information would "undermine" the trust of users and "unnecessarily burden Google."
Google has been criticized for cooperating with the Chinese government and censoring material on the Google.cn site, a move that some consider contrary to its "don't be evil" corporate motto.
Censorship Within China
Norvig said that media coverage of Google in China has not properly "differentiated" these issues of censorship and user protection.
Google has acceded to Chinese censorship within the Google.cn domain because that's simply a precondition for lawfully doing business in China, Norvig said. "No matter what you do, censorship is there." China's government can enforce censorship at the Internet service provider level, so having sites removed from Google's search results doesn't necessarily make matters any worse, he added.
In fact, the performance slowdown associated with such ISP censorship is one of Google's stated reasons for launching the Google.cn site.
Google has taken the tack of adding a "level of transparency" by indicating when results are being censored, "so at least the user knows what's going on," Norvig said.
On the customer protection front, Google has also resisted launching products like Gmail or Blogger in China, to avoid potentially having to disclose user information to the Chinese government, he said.
These censorship and protection issues were part of what kept Google from entering China in the first place, Norvig said. He seemed frustrated by the widespread criticism of Google.cn's censorship. "From 1998 up until this month, we resisted opening Google.cn for these reasons, and we didn't see a lot of press coverage saying how courageous we were," he said.