Google Says Censorship Not Obstacle to Its Middle East Growth

Google Inc., owner of the world’s most popular Internet search engine, said it’s not hindered in the Middle East by government-backed censorship as it seeks to ride growing opportunities in the region.

“We tend to operate in a very, very competitive industry, so users are generally one click away from changing their preferences,” Ari Kesisoglu, manager for Google Middle East, said in a Bloomberg Television interview in Dubai. “We are not censoring our own information, and we’ve never been asked to.”

Google, based in Mountain View, California, is seeking to gain ground in the Middle East, where it estimates that less than 15 percent of the residents go online. The company went public with a dispute in China in January, saying it was no longer willing to comply with filtering regulations.

“If you want to play ball in China or the Middle East or basically any other country outside, you’ve got to play by the local rules,” said Jin Yoon, an analyst at Nomura Holdings Inc. in Hong Kong. “If you don’t play by the local rules, you essentially have to mark yourself out of the market.”

China’s government confirmed that it renewed Google’s Internet license, after the U.S. company’s local venture pledged to allow regulators to supervise its Web content, the official Xinhua news agency said July 11. The move gives Google a chance to win search share lost to market leader Baidu Inc. and woo advertisers put off by its dispute with the government.

“Whatever happened in China is completely exceptional and it doesn’t result in us making any decisions globally,” Kesisoglu said.

Middle East Censorship

In many Middle Eastern countries, television programs and films cut out nudity, physical intimacy or homosexual scenes. Internet firewalls are common across the region, particularly in the Persian Gulf, where several countries ban popular websites such as Skype and Flickr. Websites that are critical of Islam or ruling political regimes are often blocked.

In August, Yahoo! Inc. purchased Maktoob.com, providing it with an entry point into a market that includes 22 countries and more than 350 million Arabic speakers. Maktoob is the largest portal in the Arab world with 16 million monthly users. Vodafone Egypt last year purchased Sarmady, a Cairo-based provider of digital content.

“Google, Yahoo, help the region and lobby the government for less censorship,” said Samih Toukan, founder of Maktoob.com. “We lobby as local people because censorship hurts us, it hurts innovation it hurts growth.”

Photographer: Tony Avelar/Bloomberg

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A pedestrian passes by the headquarters of Google Inc.

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Photographer: Tony Avelar/Bloomberg

A pedestrian passes by the headquarters of Google Inc.

Bloggers Arrested

Global Voices Online, an international bloggers’ network, has documented 206 cases of bloggers under arrest or threat, mostly in China, Egypt and Iran. In Egypt and Iran, online political activists have been arrested and prosecuted after rallying in support of opposition parties.

Restrictions stretch beyond the Web and films. In the United Arab Emirates, Research In Motion Ltd.’s BlackBerry smartphones may be subject to monitoring if the government is able to bring communications by the handheld devices under emergency and security rules.

Blackberry devices, introduced in the U.A.E. in 2006, are not covered by the country’s 2007 Safety, Emergency and National Security rules, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority said July 25.

To contact the reporter on this story: Vivian Salama in Abu Dhabi at vsalama@bloomberg.net

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