by RAY FLEMING l IN the course of a few days Google, the world's leading search engine operator, has found itself facing in opposite directions in its relations with different governments. At home it is resisting a demand from the US government to make available data on past usage of some of its sites, specifically those offering pornographic material. The government says it wants only to analyse broad patterns of use of these sites and is not interested in the names of those accessing them. Google says that meeting this request would set a precedent that could be used much more extensively in the future and would cut across the bond of trust it has with its users. That seems right. Yesterday, however, Google announced that it is starting a new dedicated service to China which it has agreed to pre-censor according to its knowledge of what topics are unacceptable to the Chinese government. So anyone in Beijing searching Google for “Tiananmen Square massacre” or “Dalai Lama” or “Falun Gong” (the banned spiritual movement) will not get the information that is available in the rest of the world; instead they will see an announcement that the requested web page has been removed. Google acknowledges that this will cut across its principle of “Making all possible information available to everyone who has a computer or mobile phone” but argues that the Chinese government is already able to censor such information contained on its international service. It also says that its competitors such as Yahoo! and the local market leader Baidu already operate within these restrictions and that it cannot afford to remain outside them if it is to establish itself in China in the long term. Interestingly enough, Google already places restrictions on its web pages according to local laws, for instance in France (nothing that might stir racial hatred) and Germany (Holocaust deniers are banned) so the precedent already exists. And it can certainly be argued that inevitably in the long term much of the huge amount of information available on Google and other search engines will trickle through the layers of government censorship to the benefit of all those Chinese citizens seeking knowledge about the world outside.

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