By Bloomberg News
Jan. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Searches on Google Inc.’s Chinese Web site for information about the 1989 crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square have surged since the search engine said last week it will stop censoring results.
Queries for “Truth of Tiananmen” grew at the second- fastest pace of any search term on the Google.cn site as of 9 a.m. local time today, according to data available on the company’s mainland Chinese Web site. China strictly controls information on the crackdown.
The searches underline the growing conflict China faces as government efforts to control online content confront a surging population of Internet users who demand greater access to information. Hundreds of Chinese Web users gathered last week at Google’s Beijing offices to show support after the company said it may leave the nation. Google said today it’s meeting with the government and continues to censor its China site.
“Irrespective of where one stands on the political spectrum of China, people will still be curious to test if censorship has been lifted,” said Cherian George, an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University, said by telephone from Singapore. “Internet censorship is ineffective in stopping determined activists or the highly-committed information seeker.”
Google said last week it had discovered “highly sophisticated” attacks on its network emanating from China and attempts to access the accounts of human rights activists using its Gmail e-mail service.
Those attacks and increased limits on free speech online in the past year led Google to say Jan. 12 it was no longer willing to censor Google.cn and may shut the site and its offices in China if unable to reach an agreement with the government on operating an unfiltered search engine. Google continued today to censor its site in compliance with Chinese laws, Jessica Powell, a Tokyo-based spokeswoman at the company, said by e-mail.
Searches for information on the Tiananmen Square crackdown began soon after Google’s announcement last week on censorship. “Tiananmen Square incident video” was the second fastest growing search term on Google.cn as of 6 p.m. on Jan. 14., according to data from the Web site.
Terms related to the Tiananmen Square protests weren’t among Google.cn’s most-searched for in November and not one of the top 10 searches for 2009, according to data available on the Web site. Google.cn’s most-popular searches last year were for information about the solar eclipse that darkened China in July and the violent ethnic rioting that hit China’s westernmost Xinjiang province the same month, according to the data.
“The sudden surge in searches for Tiananmen related topics shows users have been trying to work out whether Google has now dropped censorship altogether,” said Isaac Mao, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. “Subjects like Tiananmen are good acid-tests.”
Searches for information on the crackdown fell to the seventh-fastest growing as of 11 a.m. local time today. The fastest-growing volume of queries was for the Web log of Chinese financial analyst Wang Weichen. Differing phrases for Google’s departure from China were the fifth and 18th fastest growing searches, according to the site.
China is the world’s biggest Internet market. It was home to 384 million Web users at the end of 2009, according to the China Internet Network Information Center, a government agency that registers online domain names. That’s more than triple the 110 million users the nation had four years ago when Google opened its mainland China site.
Authorities censor online content deemed critical of the government by shutting domestic Web sites and blocking access to ones based overseas, including those of Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. The Chinese government shut more than 100,000 Web sites in December in an “escalation” of its censorship efforts, according to Pali Capital Inc. analyst Tian Hou.
Google agreed to censor search results on Google.cn when the Mountain View, California-based company started the site in January 2006. The company said it opened the site “in the belief that the benefits of increased access to information for people in China and a more open Internet outweighed our discomfort in agreeing to censor the results.”
The company had a 35.6 percent share of the Chinese market last year, trailing leader Baidu Inc.’s 58.4 percent share, according to researcher Analysys International.
Crowds of Chinese Internet users gathered outside Google’s Beijing office after the company’s announcement. They arrived at the Tsinghua Science Park in western Beijing in freezing temperatures to lay fresh-cut flowers, candles and hand-written letters in front of the building.
“The government was right in filtering some stuff on the Internet but we need more sources of information to separate truth from rumor,” said Shen Shihai, a 27-year-old who works for a technology company in the western city of Chengdu and took time out of a business trip to the Chinese capital to visit Google’s offices.
The nation’s system of internet censorship, dubbed the “Great Firewall of China,” is the world’s most pervasive, according to Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society. On the tablet outside Google’s Beijing offices where its logo is inscribed, Shen left a note that read in Chinese, “Google, bye. See you on the other side of the wall.”
-- With assistance from Alfred Cang in Shanghai. Mark McCord in Hong Kong. Editors: John Liu, Bret Okeson