Google has made a final attempt to rescue its presence in China after Beijing threatened to close its Chinese website at the end of this month – the latest episode in a long-running battle over censorship.
In a blog posted on Tuesday, David Drummond, the company’s chief legal officer, said the Chinese government had rejected Google’s practice of automatically redirecting users in mainland China to its Hong Kong site.
If Beijing does block Google, the US group faces loss of access to more than 400m people who make up the world’s largest internet population, in a market that still has enormous growth potential. Mr Drummond said Chinese government officials had made clear that the redirect was “unacceptable – and that if we continue redirecting users, our internet content provider licence will not be renewed (after expiry on June 30).
“Without an ICP licence, we can’t operate a commercial website like Google.cn – so Google would effectively go dark in China.”
Although Washington may come under pressure to take up the case, the Obama administration has signalled for months that the dispute is primarily an issue for Google rather than one requiring high-profile intervention by the US government.
In March, Google started automatically redirecting visitors of its mainland Chinese site, google.cn, to its Hong Kong site, in an attempt at preserving a bridgehead in China while ending censorship of politically sensitive search results.
Since then, access to Google.com.hk has been patchy. Chinese-language searches containing certain characters triggered browser errors, which experts believe are caused by Beijing’s filtering of foreign websites.
Overall, the impact on Google in China was smaller than feared, with its share of Chinese online search revenues dropping just five percentage points to about 30 per cent in the first quarter, according to Analysys, a Beijing-based research house.
Google’s latest announcement, however, indicates that its initial solution was not based on a compromise negotiated with Beijing but rather a unilateral attempt at getting around China’s censorship regime.
In a last-ditch attempt at compromise, it has now created a “landing page” on Google.cn which offers visitors an optional link to the Hong Kong site instead of automatically redirecting Chinese users there.
Google said it was “hopeful” that its ICP licence would be renewed on this basis, but it is understood that the new compromise has not been discussed with Beijing.