Google Stops Redirect for Chinese Users

BY Talea Miller  June 29, 2010 at 7:18 PM EST


In an effort to keep its license to operate in China, Google will stop automatically rerouting mainland China users to an uncensored version of its search engine, the company announced late Monday.

Under the previous configuration google.cn users were sent to google.com.hk, hosted in Hong Kong. The setup was created in March so the company could continue to serve Chinese customers without censoring search results as the Chinese government requires.

“This redirect … has been working well for our users and for Google,” wrote Chief Legal Officer David Drummond on the official Google blog.

“However, it’s clear from conversations we have had with Chinese government officials that they find the redirect unacceptable.”

If Google continues to redirect users the company’s Internet Content Provider license would not be renewed and Google would have to shut down its website in China entirely, the post said. To adhere to Chinese law, the google.cn site now acts instead as a landing page containing a button and link for the Hong Kong site, but whether that will be enough of a change to affect the government’s decision remains unclear.

“If you just technically adhere to the law, sometimes that’s enough, sometimes it’s not, it’s really hard to predict,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, visiting Fellow at Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy and a former professor at the University of Hong Kong. “There is definitely a possibility that the Chinese authorities won’t find it sufficient.”

“You can almost see it as a cheeky move by Google,” said Andrew Lih, a technology and media writer who teaches at the University of Southern California. “It’s abiding by the letter of the law, but not necessarily the spirit of the law.”

In January, Google shocked China market watchers when it threatened to shut down operations there, and said it would no longer self-censor. The move came after cyber attacks on its site, including breaches of e-mail accounts, some of which belonged to human rights activists.

But, Drummond said in his post, the company worked hard to keep Google.cn alive after all because of its goal to make information available to users everywhere.

Considering the size of the potential market in China, the decision was also likely a financial one, said Lih.

“I don’t think they are ready to pull out,” said Lih. “To stay out of a market with a billion customers would be really, really foolish.”

Lih called the redirect a clever public relations move, but said that Google is now being forced to reconsider its entire China strategy and find an equilibrium between maintaining its decision not to censor and being able to still work in China.

The latest chapter in the Google-China saga is not a step back for Google, said MacKinnon, but is a bit of a side step.

“It’s a convoluted effort to keep their uncensored search engine accessible,” she said. “If they do nothing then what happens is that google.cn ceases to exist and things are just worse.”