A co-founder of popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia praised Google for its decision to stop censoring Internet searches in China and called on other major U.S. companies, including Microsoft and Facebook, to follow.
Wales is no stranger to Web censorship in China. Wikipedia has faced periods of total censorship and partial censorship in China due to articles on the site that discuss politically sensitive issues, including China's takeover of Tibet, the massacre of student democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in 1989, the issue of Taiwan independence and repression of the Falun Gong religious movement.
Human rights groups also praised Google's move, calling it an important challenge to the Chinese government's use of censorship to maintain control over its citizens.
The U.S. Internet search giant on Monday announced an end to search censorship on its China Web site, saying all queries will now be redirected to its site dedicated to Hong Kong, which is part of China but operates under a different set of laws that protect free speech. Google has said the decision came after the company was hit by sophisticated cyber attacks that were able to access the Gmail e-mail accounts of dozens of human rights activists connected with China, in addition to the limits on free speech and persistent blocking of Web sites including YouTube, Google Docs and Blogger.
The decision will likely hurt Google through the loss of business partners and advertising revenue in China, the land with the largest Internet population in the world. At least one company, Tom Online, has already switched to Baidu.com, Google's main rival in China. But Google has gained elsewhere by positioning itself as a champion of Internet free speech.
"Figuring out how to make good on our promise to stop censoring search on Google.cn has been hard," the company said in the blog posting. "We want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services, including users in mainland China, yet the Chinese government has been crystal clear throughout our discussions that self-censorship is a non-negotiable legal requirement."
China has faced criticism for years over its censorship of the Internet, an issue it often portrays at home as necessary to keep pornography and other undesirable material out of China. Groups including Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, Freedom House, and the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, have all chastised China for its censorship of political issues, and published studies of the extent of the censorship. One report estimated that Beijing employs over 30,000 people to police Web traffic.
Human Rights Watch was one of the first groups to congratulate Google on its decision to end censorship of its China searches and said other companies should stand together against censorship.
"This is a crucial moment for freedom of expression in China, and the onus is now on other major technology companies to take a firm stand against censorship," said Human Rights Watch, in a statement. "But the Chinese government should also realize that its repression only isolates its internet users from the rest of the world -- and the long-term harm of isolation far outweighs the short-term benefit of forcing companies to leave."
Reporters Without Borders, a group that champions free speech, said Google's move was bold and called on other Internet companies to create a common front on the issue and force China to allow a freer Internet.
"We can only deplore the fact that the world's biggest search engine has been forced to close its Chinese version under pressure from the censors," Reporters Without Borders said. "We pay tribute to Google because, by taking this courageous stance, it is creating a real debate on the issue of censorship in China and is betting on a free Internet accessible to all in the mid or long term."
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