No booze or jokes for Googlers in China

In its move to comply with Chinese laws, the search giant filters out a wide range of sites beyond those critical of Beijing.

Google's new China search engine not only censors many Web sites that question the Chinese government, but it goes further than similar services from Microsoft and Yahoo by targeting teen pregnancy, homosexuality, dating, beer and jokes.

In addition, CNET News.com has found that contrary to Google co-founder Sergey Brin's promise to inform users when their search results are censored, the company frequently filters out sites without revealing it.

Some of the blackballing appeared to be a mistake. The University of Pennsylvania's entire engineering school server--which hosted one Falun Gong site--was blocked from Google's Google.cn China site. So was an Essex County Web site, which sports the word "sex"--as in "Essex"--in its domain name. Google.cn also doesn't display search.msn.com to someone who's hunting for the rival Microsoft service.

And the results can be haphazard. A search in English on "Tiananmen Square" turned up some sites but not others. Tsquare.tv, a site devoted to the protest and subsequent massacre, was filtered out, but Wikipedia's write-up appeared. And an image search revealed the iconic photo of a student blocking a column of tanks before the 1989 massacre. Search results also appear to vary depending on whether they're done in English or in Chinese characters.

In a series of conversations starting Wednesday, Google representatives responded to CNET News.com's queries by saying that some Web site blockages are human errors that should be expected when any new service is introduced, and others represent a concerted attempt to comply with Chinese censorship laws. By Thursday, a handful of blackballed sites, such as the engineering school and Budweiser.com, had been cleared to appear on Google.cn, though Guinness.com had not.

When launching its China-based search site this week, Google defended its decision to comply with the dictates of China's ruling Communist Party by saying the new service expands access to information for Chinese users. But its choice has been controversial, not least because Google's corporate motto is "Don't be evil."

Google's China launch comes as scrutiny of search engine providers' commitment to civil liberties is increasing and criticism of their choice to comply with repressive regimes is growing. Congress is planning hearings in the next few weeks, and on Wednesday, Rep. Chris Smith blasted Google for "collaborating with (democracy activists') persecutors."

Because access from China to the U.S. Google.com site is limited for financial and political reasons, the vast majority of Chinese are forced to turn to domestic search engines instead. Google's Brin has estimated that Google.com is available to only half of the country's users. Other reports say that when search terms such as "Tiananmen Square" are typed in on Google.com, the site immediately becomes unreachable for a few hours.

Bill Albert, a spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, said it was "discouraging" to find that his group has been banned from Google.cn, especially since it hasn't been blackballed by Yahoo's China site or by Microsoft's Chinese version of MSN. "While our focus is on U.S. rates of teen pregnancy and birth we do have a lot of people coming from foreign countries, and we certainly would like to keep that line of communication open," Albert said.

A search for "teen pregnancy" through Google's U.S. Web site lists the group's home page as the first result. But in an identical search through Google.cn, the campaign's Web site is not listed. Google does not inform users that it was deleted.

Google said in a statement Wednesday that its filters are "intended to block the minimum required to comply with (Chinese) laws and regulations."

In a second statement to CNET News.com, the company added: "As with most brand-new services, our launch is immediately followed by a process of identifying and correcting bugs or other technical issues. Google.cn is no exception, and we will continue to refine our processes to ensure that we are filtering the minimum necessary, and that notices are properly displayed in all instances results have been filtered." (Google refuses to make its list of off-limits Web sites public.)

The buggy Chinese filtering stands out as a rare black eye for a company that prides itself on superior search technology, has a $126 billion market capitalization and boasts on its payroll one of the world's highest concentrations of computer science doctoral degrees.

A September 2000 Chinese government directive says that Internet content providers must restrict information that may "harm the

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