Google Softens Approach to China

Google may not be throwing in the towel in its battle with the Chinese government, but it certainly took a step back this week.

Google announced late Monday that it will no longer automatically redirect search traffic from China to its Hong Kong search engine. The announcement came just two days before Google's license to operate in China must be renewed.

The company hopes the move placates Chinese officials , who had threatened to revoke Google's Internet Content Provider (ICP) license if the company did not stop redirecting search requests from Chinese users.

In a blog post last night, Google chief legal officer David Drummond said the company plans to complete the shift in direction over the next few days.

Instead of the automatic redirect, the Google.cn site now shows an image of the Google search bar above a link that says, "We've moved to Google.com.hk. Please visit our new Web site." Clicking on the logo or text takes users to the Hong Kong Web site.

It should be clear on Wednesday whether the Chinese government accepts the compromise move and will renew Google's license to continue doing business in the country.

Without a license, Google would go dark in China.

Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group, said that while Google's move amounts to caving in to Chinese officials, executives had few alternatives if they wanted the company to continue doing business in China.

"They really have no choice if they want to stay in that region," Enderle said. "That was the problem of taking a position the company could not sustain. You don't fight governments. Google had a choice, capitulate or leave. They capitulated."

Google in January had threatened to halt its operations in China after contending that an attack on its network from inside China aimed to expose the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. At the same time, Google said it was reconsidering its willingness to censor the search results of users in China as required by the government.

After several months of negotiations with Chinese officials, Google announced in March that it had stopped censoring search results in the country. In a blog post at the time, Drummond said the company had stopped censoring Google Search, Google News and Google Images on the Chinese Google.cn site. Users in China were redirected to the Hong Kong-based Google.com.hk site, where they were given uncensored search results in simplified Chinese.

"It seems to me [that the compromise] is a smart business move," said Augie Ray, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. "Google certainly was not going to get the Chinese government to alter its long-held commitment to controlling content on the Internet. The best Google can hope for is to find an acceptable middle ground so that it can honor its own commitment to unfiltered search results while working within the rules set by the Chinese government."

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, argued that this week's moves don't indicate that Google has shifted its stance on censorship of content.

"Censorship was Google's line in the sand. It has not crossed it," Gottheil said. "Google did what it said it was going to do. It stopped censoring. For Google, this is mainly a reminder of the stand they took earlier. Their reputation is a business asset. If China accepts their compromise, it helps them keep a larger part of the Chinese market than they would if [they were] completely shut down, but it's not as good as their prior situation."

Enderle, though, argued that the latest move makes Google look "immature and foolish" because it initially took a position it couldn't sustain.

Ray contended that Google had no choice but to compromise if it wanted to remain in the enormous market.

"In the end, it is difficult to imagine that exiting or being forced to exit the Chinese market would be positive for Google," he added. "And it seems the Chinese government would prefer to have Google operating within the country, since having the large and recognized Internet company depart would be potentially embarrassing. There is good reason for the two parties to continue to work toward a mutually agreeable resolution, but in the end it is the Chinese government that will decide what is agreeable and what is not."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin , or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com .

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