Google is expected to stop redirecting everyone using its Mainland China web site Google.cn to its Hong Kong search engine Google.com.hk, following a Chinese government diktat.
While the redirect, which offers unfiltered search in simplified Chinese, has been working well for its users and for Google, Chinese authorities find the redirect unacceptable. Chinese officials have threatened to terminate its internet licence if it continues to redirect users.
Google's China licence is due for renewal on 30 June. "Without an ICP licence, we can't operate a commercial website like Google.cn - so Google would effectively go dark in China," David Drummond, the corporate development and chief legal officer of Google, said.
A termination of licence to operate its website in the country would force Google to pull out from the largest internet market. Google had refused to censor results on Google.cn in January 2010.
Drummond, who has been the spokesman of the company ever since Google chose to confront Beijing on its rigid censorship controls, said in a blogpost posted yesterday, "We currently automatically redirect everyone using Google.cn to Google.com.hk, our Hong Kong search engine. This redirect, which offers unfiltered search in simplified Chinese, has been working well for our users and for Google.
However, it is clear from conversations we have had with Chinese government officials that they find the redirect unacceptable - and that if we continue redirecting users our internet content provider licence will not be renewed (it's up for renewal on 30 June). Without an ICP licence, we can't operate a commercial website like Google.cn - so Google would effectively go dark in China."
Google has tried to circumvent the problem by automatically redirecting all its users to a landing page on Google.cn that links to Google.com.hk, thereby sticking to its commitment of not censoring results, but at the same time hoping that the new strategy will appease China.
But, analysts say that Chinese users will still be able to access most of the uncensored results, which is the main bone of contention with the Chinese regime, and they do not expect to see any change in China's stance towards Google on the issue.
Google said it has re-submitted its ICP licence renewal application based on the new approach. "This new approach is consistent with our commitment not to self censor and, we believe, with local law. We are, therefore, hopeful that our licence will be renewed," wrote Drummond.
Google decided to stop censoring results in China after a highly sophisticated and targeted cyber attack originating from China in January 2010 tried to break into the e-mail accounts of Chinese human rights activists.(See: Google threatens to exit China after cyber attacks)
Refusing to bow any further to the strict censorship laws under which it is compelled to operate in China, Google had said it is ready to exit from the Chinese market, where it has made its biggest investments.
In March, Google closed its search engine in China and began directing users to the Hong Kong site, which prompted a Chinese government reaction by swiftly erecting firewalls to block 384 million Chinese web surfers from accessing Google at Hong Kong-based internet site. (See: China blocks access as Google exits to HK)
Hong Kong, although a part of China, is governed by different laws and users from Mainland China are still unable to get many search results on google.com.hk after China erected firewalls to certain sensitive terms.
China's minister of industry and information technology Li Yizhong told reporters in March, "If you don't respect Chinese laws, you are unfriendly and irresponsible, and the consequences will be on you."
If Google is forced to shut down its operations in China as well as in Hong Kong, it will not create a dent on its revenues since it holds approximately 31 per cent of the internet search market share in China, behind market leader Baidu's 61 per cent.
China accounts for a mere $200 million of Google's global revenue of $22 billion.