Google's Chinese operating license hangs in the balance

Posted by Emma Woollacott

Google has abandoned its policy of redirecting Chinese users to its Hong Kong servers in an attempt to keep its operating license in the country. The move comes as Chinese rival Baidu takes steps to expand.

Google closed its google.cn Chinese site in March over censorship issues, and started redirecting users to its google.com.hk site instead.

But its operating license comes up for renewal this week, and the company says it's been made apparent that it will lose the license unless it calls a halt to the redirection.

"It’s clear from conversations we have had with Chinese government officials that they find the redirect unacceptable - and that if we continue redirecting users our Internet Content Provider license will not be renewed," says David Drummond, SVP of corporate development and chief legal officer.

"Without an ICP license, we can’t operate a commercial website like Google.cn -so Google would effectively go dark in China."

Instead, the company plans to sidestep the issue, by putting into general practice something that it's been testing for a small number of users. Now, users will see a landing page on google.cn that offers them a link to google.com.hk. The change should take place over the next few days.

Drummond says he reckons this will be enough to comply with local law. Google's put in its application for license renewal - and is keeping its fingers crossed.

But with the new landing page offering one option and one option only - to click through to google.com.hk - the Chinese authorities may feel that nothing has actually changed.

To add insult to injury, Reuters reports that China's leading domestic search engine, Baidu - which has no qualms over censorship - is hiring American software engineers.

 "Baidu believes that talent is the key to our success as a company, and we go where ever the best talent can be found, whether here in China or in Silicon Valley," Zheng Bin, Baidu's human resources director told Reuters.

"As we develop more and more advanced search technologies, our need for world-class talent will only continue to increase."