Google’s AlphaGo is playing the world Go champ in China, but nobody can watch it there

Players compete in an e-sports match on 22 Oct., 2016.
Zhang Peng

WUZHEN, China -- China is hosting a hotly anticipated tournament of Go – a complex, ancient Chinese board game – against a powerful Google computer program, but nobody inside the country can watch.

Ke Jie, the Chinese 19-year-old world champ of Go, played – and lost -- his first match against Google's AlphaGo on Tuesday. AlphaGo's latest victory cemented a milestone in artificial intelligence, and the livestreams were watched by 60 million people across the Internet, according to Google.

But folks in China who wanted to get a glimpse of the action hit a virtual wall – Google's signature search and services, including Gmail and YouTube, are already blocked by censors in China.

Chinese state media outlets were also restricted by authorities from live broadcasting the game, and issued coverage guidelines ahead of the match, according to sources familiar with the matter, who declined to be identified because they weren't authorized to speak in an official capacity.

Local media outlets also pulled their live feeds, and reports of the game dropped mention of Google's involvement. The company declined to comment.

Restricting coverage of the event took China's ban on Google one step further, though it's not uncommon for Chinese media to receive coverage instructions. Authorities in China tightly control media and information, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and foreign news reports.

The reasons of the crackdown are unclear, and perhaps surprising, given that Go originated in China 3,000 years ago, and the world champ, Ke, is Chinese – the games easily could have been played up to the benefit of both China and Google.

But the coverage clampdown underscores the complicated relationship the tech behemoth has with China, the fastest-growing Internet market.

Google set up shop more than a decade ago in China, but pulled out of the market in 2010 after it discovered a cyberattack affected a number of the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.

The company wouldn't cave to China's censorship demands, and instead routed Chinese traffic through Hong Kong. But it wasn't enough to circumvent Chinese censors, dubbed the "Great Firewall," and eventually meant the company was shut out entirely.

Despite that, Google has continued to seek ways to expand its footprint in China, and negotiations with authorities are ongoing for a bigger return. At the moment, the company has offices in Beijing and Shanghai with roughly 500 employees, split between engineering and sales.

Google offers its various services to clients like Chinese firms looking to go global. Its Google Translate app was recently also made available in China to users. But at the moment, Google remains largely unable to expand rapidly in China.

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