In an effort to protect users of its Google.cn website, Google is moving search records out of China and into the US, a company executive said this week.
Google.cn is a version of its search engine that is hosted in China and adheres to Chinese censorship laws. It was launched in January.
The Californian company has decided to store search records from the site outside of the country in order to prevent China's government from being able to access the data without Google's consent, said Peter Norvig, Google's director of research, speaking on Monday at a panel discussion at Santa Clara University. "We didn't want to be in the position of having to hand over these kinds of records to the government," he said.
Google retains information on the search queries performed by its users, along with the IP addresses associated with queries, to better understand how its search engine is being used, Norvig said. Google's critics worry that this information could put users' privacy at risk, by allowing anyone in possession of this information to learn who has been searching for what. IP addresses are unique numbers assigned to devices that are connected to the internet.
The use of this data received widespread media attention in the US after Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN division and AOL revealed they had provided search records after being subpoenaed last August by the US DoJ (Department of Justice).
The DoJ has said it needs the information to defend a legal challenge to the Child Online Protection Act, but Google has fought its subpoena in court. Google argues that disclosing this information would "undermine" the trust of users and "unnecessarily burden" it.
Google has been criticised for co-operating with the Chinese government and censoring material on the Google.cn site, a move that some consider contrary to its "don't be evil" corporate mantra.
Norvig said that media coverage of Google in China has not properly "differentiated" these issues of censorship and user protection.
Google has agreed to Chinese censorship within the Google.cn domain because that's simply part of lawfully doing business in China, Norvig said. "No matter what you do, censorship is there," he said.
China's government can enforce censorship at the ISP level, so having sites removed from the Google search results isn't necessarily making matters any worse, Norvig added.
In fact, the performance slowdown associated with such ISP censorship is one of Google's stated reasons for launching the Google.cn site.
Google has taken the tack of adding a "level of transparency" by indicating when results are being censored. "So at least the user knows what's going on," Norvig said.
On the customer protection front, Google has also resisted launching products such as Gmail and Blogger in China to avoid being in the position of having to disclose user information to the Chinese government, he said.
These censorship and protection issues were part of what kept Google from entering China in the first place, Norvig said. He seemed frustrated by the widespread criticism of Google.cn's censorship. "From 1998 up until this month, we resisted opening Google.cn for these reasons, and we didn't see a lot of press coverage saying how courageous we were," he said.
But political issues aren't really a priority to most users in China, according to Google's director of research.
"What's important to users is access to information," Norvig said. "We're giving them that, and we think that's most important. We'd like to give them all the information but we just can't.
"Some of the people want to query about democracy, but most of them just want to know about their pop stars."