WikiLeaks: China Pressured Google on Internet Censorship
By Michael Kan
Google’s struggles to operate its search engine in China worsened after a high-ranking Chinese official Googled himself only to find “results critical of him,” according to a new cable released by WikiLeaks on Saturday.
A member of China’s top ruling body believed the company’s main search engine at Google.com was illegal after discovering the site provided uncensored search results, according to an unnamed source in a released cable dated May 2009. The official then demanded the search giant remove a link to Google.com from the company’s censored China-based search engine at Google.cn.
The name of the official is redacted in the released cable. But according to a New York Times report, the official in question is Li Changchun, a member of China’s Politburo Standing Committee.
Li, 66, is considered to be the propaganda chief for China. A WikiLeaks cable also names Li as the government official who oversaw the December 2009 hacking attack on Google’s computer systems, the Times reported.
The release of the cables come months after Google decided to pull back some of its operations in the country. In March, Google announced it would stop censoring its search results in the country, a requirement brought on by the Chinese government. Now the company’s Google.cn page simply redirects users to Google’s Hong Kong search engine, which provides unfiltered results. The Chinese government, however, continues to censor out searches from the page.
The newly released cable, along with another dated July 2009, claim that the Chinese government took repeated efforts to force Google to meet its demands on Internet censorship. From 2007 to 2009, Google received numerous request for the company to remove the Google.com link from the Google.cn page.
At one point Chinese officials even asked the country’s three state-owned telecommunication companies to stop working with the search giant as a form of retribution, an unnamed source in one of the cable’s claimed. An unidentified source in another cable believed Google was being “harassed” following the company’s three-year history of facing periodic blockages of its services by the Chinese government.
Google, however, held its position on not removing the link, with the company’s lawyers believing they found “no legal basis for China’s demands.”
“While the government has called google.com an illegal website to justify its request for removal of the link, Chinese law does not explicitly identify the site as illegal, the site is not blocked by China, and thousands of other Chinese websites include links to google.com,” according to one of the leaked cables.
Google further explained that keeping the link on the Google.cn page was a principle the company said it would uphold when it testified to U.S. Congress about entering the China market.
China also wanted Google to take action on its Google Earth images. The country asked the U.S. government to force the company to reduce the resolution of Google Earth images of China’s military, nuclear and space installations, as well as another sensitive government facilities. An unnamed source said there would be “grave consequences” if terrorists used the images for attacks, according to the November 2006 cable.
Google offered no comment on the released cables. China’s Foreign Ministry also refused to give comment on the cables’ content when asked at a press briefing last week.
But the challenges Google faced in China according to the released cables are nothing revelatory, but “business as usual”, said Mark Natkin, managing director for Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting.
“WikiLeaks is just laying bare what most people in the industry already knew,” he said. “Authorities in China have a particular policy agenda and they pursue that in a variety of ways. It applies to both foreign and Chinese companies.”
Chinese authorities often require that Internet firm place their servers within the country, which can lead to conflicts for foreign companies such as Google, Natkin added. Currently, Google has until July of next year to apply for a necessary license with the Chinese government in order to continue operating its online mapping service within the country.
Google, however, must locate its online mapping servers within China to meet the license requirements. So far Google, has yet to apply, according to the Chinese government.