Friday, September 04, 2009

Google's China head quits company

Kai-Fu Lee, the executive who led Google Inc.'s expansion in China, is to leave the company it was announced Friday September 4. Lee will step down as the president of Google Greater China in mid-September to set up a new venture in Beijing, details of which have not been released. Google said Boon-Lock Yeo, director of its Shanghai engineering office, would take over Lee's engineering responsibilities. John Liu, who leads its Greater China sales team, will assume his business and operational responsibilities.


Lee previously worked for Microsoft Inc. and was hired by Google in 2004. He oversaw development of services meant to help the search giant expand its share of China's search market, which is dominated by local rival Baidu Inc.While Google has increased its market share it still trails behind Baidu. Google has achieved only a 29.1 percent share of search traffic compared to Baidu's 61.6 percent according to Analysys International, a technology research firm.

During his employment at Microsoft between 2000 and 2004 Lee helped develop its MSN Internet search technology, including desktop search software which rivaled Google's. He left to lead Google's China operation after being offered a 10 million U.S dollar compensation package. It was an acrimonious split that led to Microsoft suing Lee and Google, contending his job would violate a noncompete agreement that prohibited him from doing similar work for a rival for one year. Microsoft also accused Lee of using insider information to get his job at Google. Microsoft was counter sued by Google and the companies later reached a settlement, the details of which were not released.

Lee's departure comes after months of difficulties faced by the search giant in China. "Lee has faced a lot of pressure from the government, which has really stepped up its censorship efforts, so his departure may be a relief for him personally," said Isaac Mao, a fellow at Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "Google has been too compliant to the Chinese government, and modeling Baidu too closely. It should be more independent-minded and less concerned with short-term results." In June this year Google suspended its "Suggest" search prompt feature on its Chinese site after the local-language service was criticized by the government for providing links to pornographic material. China also adopted "punitive measures" against the company's international site, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said on June 25, as the service became inaccessible to Chinese Web users for hours. Several other Google ventures have also been subject to restrictions including YouTube and Google's blogger service which is celebrating its tenth birthday today. Google's news service also frequently fails to work, and other disruptions happen frequently.

The constant disruption to Google's services have frustrated both Internet users and the company alike. It has also affected the numbers of people using Google's search engine within China according to recent figures showing significant falls. The Chinese government rarely comments on the censorship of websites or on its Internet restrictions. When asked in March why YouTube appeared to be blocked, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, "The Internet in China is fully open and the Chinese Government manages the Internet according to the law. As for what you can and cannot watch, watch what you can watch, and don't watch what you cannot watch."

Lee's successors will have a challenging task ahead of them as they struggle against both competition and the Golden Shield Project, commonly known as the Great Firewall of China. During his time at Google Lee helped start Google's Chinese-language site, and oversaw the roll-out of services including Google Maps, Google Music Search and Google Translate. "It has been a true honor and privilege to work with such an amazing company," Lee said in a statement released by Google, "With a very strong leadership team in place, it seemed a very good moment for me to move to the next chapter in my career." His leaving may also be something of a relief as Lee departs from a constant battle with authorities.

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