Google's January threat to go toe-to-toe with one of the world's most powerful countries left it with virtually no option but to stop censoring its search results in China and face the consequences, analysts said.
Late last month, Google stopped censoring results, and a week later it found that China had apparently blocked some access to its Internet sites for a short period.
Google first blamed itself for last Monday's intermittent blockage but then said it was likely caused by changes to China's Internet filter.
The company's decision to redirect Chinese users from Google.cn to its Hong Kong-based site, Google.com.hk, for "uncensored" search results followed its Jan. 12 threat to pull its business out of the country . At the time, Google contended that a "highly sophisticated and targeted" 2009 attack against its network had originated in China.
Google has not blamed the Chinese government for the attack, in which hackers sought to access the Gmail accounts of human rights activists.
Nonetheless, the company has asked global users of its Google Apps hosted services to monitor their availability in China, acknowledging that the government could at any time block the country's 384 million Internet users from accessing them.
Ezra Gottheil, an analyst at Technology Business Research Inc., said it's possible that the intermittent blockage of Google sites indicates that China is either testing the waters or just trying to make it a bit difficult to access the sites.
"If the numbers going to Google.com.hk are small, China probably won't bother [restricting access]. But if the traffic picks up, there will probably be some blockage," he added.
After Google announced that it would bypass Chinese censorship rules, the government quickly moved to defend the restrictions.
During a regular Chinese government news briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said that Internet activities are monitored "to ward off information that threatens national security and society's public interest."
He would not say whether the redirecting of Google.cn users to the Hong Kong site violates Chinese regulations, but he did maintain that companies operating in China must follow its laws.
Qin also gave little hint as to how the government might react to Google's move over the long term.
"What we could be seeing is the beginning of a cat-and-mouse game, with China making subtle changes to their great firewall to block or degrade Google service in China," said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc.
"The intermittent blocking might be China experimenting with new techniques, or it might be them thinking that the best way to cause Google the most trouble is to cause on-and-off problems that are harder to diagnose," he added.
Despite the uncertainty about how China might react in the long term, Augie Ray, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc., called the decision to redirect users to the Hong Kong site a smart move . "Rather than unilaterally pulling out, they took an action that puts the ball back into China's court ," he said. "It seems unlikely the Chinese government will see this as anything other than an attempt to bypass their laws."
Meanwhile, Microsoft Corp. late last month restated that it plans to continue operating in China and will do so in accordance with the laws of the country.
"We have done business in China for over 20 years, and we intend to continue our business in China," said Cornelia Kutterer, senior manager for regulatory policy at Microsoft.
Computerworld 's Gregg Keizer and IDG News Service reporters Owen Fletcher, Jeremy Kirk and Juan Carlos Perez contributed to this story.
Read more about networking and internet in Computerworld's Networking and Internet Knowledge Center.
This story, "Google, China Play Game of Cat and Mouse" was originally published by Computerworld.