Google in 'new approach' on China

Google's Peter Barron: "We want to maintain a presence in China"

Google has announced a "new approach" in its ongoing battle with China over censorship.

Until recently, the firm automatically redirected Chinese users to its unfiltered search site in Hong Kong to get round censorship issues.

Google has said it will now stop this after Beijing warned it could lose its licence to operate in the country.

Instead, Chinese users will be sent to a "landing page". Clicking anywhere on it sends them to the Hong Kong site.

In practice, this will make little difference to Chinese internet users as searches for sensitive topics are still blocked by China's great firewall.

However, Google said that the subtle change - where users have to actively click on a link to access unfiltered search results rather than being automatically redirected - was "consistent" with its approach not to self-censor search results and was hopeful it would allow it to continue operating in China.

Chinese law demands that companies use web servers based in China and that they agree to censor certain sensitive information.

BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones said there was no guarantee the Chinese authorities would accept the new arrangement.

'Sophisticated attack'

Google announced the changes one day before the deadline to renew its Internet Content Provider (ICP) licence, necessary to operate in the country.

Analysis

It's called the "Google Dance".

To show up at the top of Google's search pages, companies regularly have to change the way their websites work, fine-tuning them as Google constantly updates its search algorithm.

Right now, Google is doing its very own Google Dance, but to the tune of the Chinese authorities.

Google can't afford to be kicked out of China - not commercially, because China already is the world's largest internet market, and not ideologically, because you cannot claim to "organise the world's information" if you have one massive black hole right in the middle of it.

While search engine optimisation is relatively straightforward, Google will find it much harder if not impossible to please China's political algorithm.

The Chinese authorities want to control what their citizens watch and read. Google's latest move doesn't meet this goal. But yielding control would critically damage Google's brand in the rest of the world.

"Without an ICP licence, we can't operate a commercial website like Google.cn—so Google would effectively go dark in China," said David Drummond of the firm in a blog post.

"That's a prospect dreaded by many of our Chinese users, who have been vocal about their desire to keep Google.cn alive."

A spokesperson for the firm said Google was about to submit its new ICP application to the government and had made the changes in an effort to continue operating in the country.

It has already begun to channel some Chinese web users to the new page.

"Over the next few days we'll end the redirect entirely, taking all our Chinese users to our new landing page—and today we re-submitted our ICP licence renewal application based on this approach," said Mr Drummond.

Google has had a long history of run-ins with the Chinese authorities.

However, these escalated in January when the search firm announced that it was considering withdrawing from China altogether following a "sophisticated" cyber attack originating from the country.

The attacks targeted the e-mail accounts of Chinese human rights activists, along with the computers and infrastructure of Google and several other US firms.

The firm eventually decided to stay in the country, but offer Chinese users unfiltered search results through its Hong Kong servers.

The latest move was part of the firm's ambition to "make information available to users everywhere," said Mr Drummond.

"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."

China hopes that nearly half the population will have access to the internet within five years. That figure is nearly 30% at the moment.

Losing business in the country could harm Google's future growth prospects.

However, unlike in other markets, Google is not focused on search in China, which is currently dominated by Baidu.

Instead, experts say, Google aims to develop its music and maps services in the country.

More on This Story

GOOGLE IN CHINA

FROM OTHER NEWS SITES
Reuters UK Google faces pressure as China to decide on license - 5 hrs ago
The Independent Google awaits China decision on business licence - 5 hrs ago
Marketing WeekFive strategies for a successful global brand - 6 hrs ago
BusinessWeek Google Awaits Fate in China as License Deadline Looms - 12 hrs ago
Financial TimesUS wary of upsetting its new friend - 14 hrs ago
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