A popular Chinese Web portal said Wednesday it is taking over operation of two services developed and formerly operated with Google just days after the search giant took a risky stand against China's strict Internet censorship rules by moving its search engine offshore.
It wasn't immediately clear what prompted the decision by Tianya.cn to take over two sites it used to run jointly with Google.
One analyst said the portal may have come under pressure to distance itself from Google or perhaps it was a sign that Google itself had decided to break more of its ties to China.
Meanwhile, Google said Wednesday it was still providing censored searches in China to some customers that held contracts requiring it, but that all censoring it does in the country would be phased out.
Chu Meng, a public relations manager for Tianya.cn, an online forum with 32 million registered users, said in an e-mail that it was taking complete control of the social networking community Tianya Laiba and of Tianya Wenda, a question-and-answer service using the technology behind the now-defunct Google Answers.
In 2007, Google announced it had taken a stake in Tianya, though it didn't reveal the date or size of its investment, except to say it wasn't a majority stake. It was not clear whether Google still holds a stake in the company.
"The technology and operation of these two products will now be completely taken over by Tianya," Chu wrote. He didn't explain why the company was making the change now.
Jessica Powell, Google's Tokyo-based spokeswoman, did not immediately comment on the Tianya statement but said via e-mail that she would check into it.
"It's really difficult to know whether this is Tianya feeling pressured or whether this is Google saying 'OK, we're actually leaving China entirely,'" said Mark Natkin, founder and managing director of Marbridge Consulting, a Beijing-based telecommunications and IT market research firm.
He said state-run companies, such as China Mobile and China Unicom, and others with links to state enterprises are likely feeling pressure to sever business ties with Google.
More than two months after saying that cyberattacks, hacking and censorship were causing it to consider leaving China, Google earlier this week began redirecting queries made to its China search address, google.cn, to an uncensored site in Hong Kong. Though part of China, Hong Kong has a semiautonomous status due to its past history as a British colony, and Google is not legally required to censor results there.
Google's deliberations set off a nasty, public dispute with Beijing's Communist government, which disliked having its policy of censoring the Internet questioned. Google's partial pullout has caused consternation among its China-based partners and raised the possibility that they would come under government pressure to stop doing business with the U.S. company.
The People's Daily, published by the Communist Party, accused Google in a commentary Wednesday of cooperating with U.S. intelligence forces.
"Its cooperation and coordination with the U.S. intelligence agencies is well known," the commentary on the front page of the newspaper's overseas edition said. "When Google was in trouble, senior U.S. officials and media all stumbled to speak up for it. Is this appropriate for corporations or businesses?"
The U.S. State Department has expressed concern about Google's allegations of cyberattacks but said Tuesday it was not involved in its decision to pull some of its business out of China.
Mainland users who are redirected to the Hong Kong site are not allowed unfettered access to everything on the Internet. Chinese government Web filters — collectively known as the Great Firewall — still automatically weed out anything considered pornographic or politically sensitive before it can reach computers in China.
Powell, Google's spokeswoman, said the company was still censoring some search functions for Chinese customers who had required it in their contracts but all censoring done by Google in China would be phased out over a time period she would not specify.
"If there are cases where we were providing a censored search and were contractually required to provide censored search, then we will honor those requirements," Powell said. She added separately in an e-mail that over time Google would "not be offering syndicated censored search to any partners in China."
Powell declined to name the customers, but Li Zhi, an analyst for Analysys International, a Beijing research firm, said Google was likely referring to search services on sites such as Sina, China's most popular portal.
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