Last night, the official Google blog posted an update relating to Google’s situation in China. As everyone knows by now, Google dismantled its mainland search operations several months ago and began redirecting anyone who typed in their previous Google.cn (and g.cn) domain name to their Hong Kong website at google.com.hk. By doing this, Google could stop filtering the search results it served to users of Google.cn while still appearing to offer a mainland China search engine. It could stop self-censoring because having its search operations physically outside of mainland China meant it was no longer bound by mainland Chinese law1. It could still appear to offer a mainland China search engine because as far as mainland China users were concerned, the Google.cn domain name still worked. It was kinda clever.
For those of us observing the whole drama, we expected the Chinese government to instantly see through the redirect as Google basically exploiting a technicality, a loophole, and move to stop it by simply taking the Google.cn domain name offline. If entering Google.cn didn’t lead to anywhere but an error page, then Google.cn would be officially dead, reflecting the reality that Google was no longer operating a mainland China search engine service. After all, if Google won’t play by the Chinese government’s rules, why should the Chinese government allow Google to still “appear” to have a Chinese search engine? Why let Google have its cake and eat it too?
As the days went on after Google redirected and Google.cn was still working and still redirecting, I had thought that the Chinese government was going to play this one quietly, instead of getting all pissy and making stupid comments about hurt feelings or foreign imperialism or such other statement completely lacking in modern public relations competence. Why? Because I had read2 and came to believe that Google’s Internet Content Provider license3 was coming up for renewal soon at the end of March, that Google timed their March 23rd departure from China so that they could still use Google.cn for a week to notify their mainland China users that they should start using google.com.hk before the ICP license expired, before the Chinese government would refuse to renew it because Google was no longer self-censoring, and before the Google.cn URL would stop working as a result. I thought Google was giving themselves as much as a week to announce their move and where they could be found in the future — provided the Chinese government doesn’t shut down the Google.cn domain name immediately after their move and then move to categorically block all Google search portals around the world. It was like Google whispering “Meet me in Hong Kong!” to their beloved users, before being torn away, teary-eyed, by the Chinese government.
Imagine my surprise when Google.cn remained accessible and continued to redirect mainland users to google.com.hk after the end of March passed and it became April, then May, and up to this very day. I thought, “Wow, the Chinese government is mighty generous, allowing Google to continue operating through this loophole. Strange.” Hell, when Google played its hand (the redirect to Hong Kong), we were entertaining speculation that the Chinese government could flip its lid and block all of Google’s services in retaliation. After all, Google had single-handedly put the Chinese government into the international spotlight, first for allegedly hacking Google’s systems, even specifically targeting the email accounts of journalists and dissidents, and then on the larger issue of internet freedom and censorship. Google was reneging on its agreement with the Chinese government to self-censor and had forced China into a situation where it could keep Google by allowing Google to violate the country’s laws or it shut down Google and have the whole world boo them even more. That Google.cn was still working, I thought the Chinese government had magnanimously renewed Google’s ICP license at the end of March, officially accepting Google’s redirect ploy.
Maybe the Chinese government was content to leave things be? Maybe they felt blocking Google entirely would result in more trouble from its Google users than the satisfaction of dicking Google in return for how Google dicked them? Maybe they felt the Great Firewall was enough, that it was better to let Chinese Google users still use Google knowing that the Great Firewall would still censor any searches and search results the government doesn’t want its people doing and seeing? It seemed like the Chinese government had made a practical decision, one that would attract no more attention to the whole drama.
Turns out I was wrong. The Chinese government did not renew Google’s ICP and officially approve of the redirect to Hong Kong. Instead, I learn now, the ICP license is actually only expiring and up for renewal tomorrow, June 30th. Of course, the Chinese government could’ve rescinded the ICP license any time it wanted in the past three months, so they were actually still “generous” in allowing Google to keep the Google.cn domain name redirecting its users to Hong Kong up until now. However, with the ICP license up for renewal tomorrow, Google has come out and say that the Chinese government has already communicated that they’re not okay with Google redirecting Google.cn to google.com.hk:
We currently automatically redirect everyone using Google.cn to Google.com.hk, our Hong Kong search engine. This redirect, which offers unfiltered search in simplified Chinese, has been working well for our users and for Google. However, 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 (it’s up for renewal on June 30). Without an ICP license, we can’t operate a commercial website like Google.cn—so Google would effectively go dark in China.
So, the little redirect trick will no longer be allowed by the Chinese government. Totally understandable. But what is Google going to do?
They’re going to stop the automatic redirect and instead put a link to google.com.hk on Google.cn. In other words, when you enter Google.cn (or g.cn) in your browser, it won’t automatically forward you to google.com.hk…you’ll have to click once to get there.
Yeah, I’m amused too. The difference seems negligible and it kinda is but we’re led to believe the Chinese government finds this acceptable or has to, maybe on some kind of technicality4. Look at the above screen shot. The search input field is actually just an image link. If you click on it to begin typing your search query, you’ll be taken to google.com.hk where you’ll then have to click to input your search query again. If Google is allowed to use such an image link on Google.cn, then its really not much different from a redirect from a general user experience perspective. It’ll be interesting if the Chinese government allows what is essentially another remarkably simple but nonetheless clever technical trick by Google to maintain search services for mainland China users.
What do you think of this turn of events? Think the Chinese government will be satisfied with Google replacing the redirect with a link? Or is it just a matter of time before the Chinese government decides that Google should not be allowed to appear to offer mainland Chinese search at all without complying with mainland self-censorship? If you’re skeptical, you’re not alone.
Update: Internet/tech powerhouse blog TechCrunch just came out with their report on this change and I’m finding it a bit strange:
Would it be wise for Google to simply let google.cn be shut down? Or for them to fully pull out of China? Of course not. But this wasn’t supposed to be about what’s “wise.” This was supposed to be about what’s “right.”
Google’s take now is that this is “right” because the shut down of google.cn is a “prospect dreaded by many of our Chinese users.” Okay — but what are those users really getting with this new google.cn? A music search engine? A text translator? Are any of these things likely to be a big help to anyone over there? Why does Google even want to put its name on that neutered product?
Wait, what? Does MG Siegler not know what the new landing page will do? Why does he think it will just be a music search engine and text translator? Has he never visited pre-Google-pull-out google.cn or google.com.hk before? Both provide links to music search and text translation hosted on the google.cn domain name. If the new Google.cn landing page provides a link to google.com.hk for web search, that’s the same thing as the link for music search and text translation on google.com.hk right now, except in reverse direction. It’s not a big deal.
Right now, you enter Google.cn and it automatically redirects you to google.com.hk. If you want to use music search, you click on the music search button under the search query box and you’re taken to google.cn/music. If you click on the text translation button, you’re taken to translate.google.cn. The way I interpret Google’s official announcement is that you’ll end up seeing a landing page quite similar to what’s on google.com.hk now, except there may be a “web search” button or the faux search query input box that is actually just an image link that will send you to google.com.hk when you click it. This is kinda neutered but not really. There’s no real loss of service and just maybe a small inconvenience of having to click once.
The power was all in the redirect. It was a big “fuck you” to China. They were saying: “You know everyone that goes to our Chinese site expecting censored results? Well, now we’re going to send them to an uncensored site. Do something about it.” Well, China did. And now Google’s reaction is to change that “fuck you” into a more docile “we don’t like you very much” with that link to google.com.hk from google.cn.
No, TechCrunch, no! Come on, you guys should know your stuff! Everyone that went to the Chinese site may have been sent to an “uncensored site” but they still got censored search results because of the Great Firewall! The redirect is not the big “fuck you” you mistakenly think it is.
The link is weak. It’s moving responsibility for uncensored searches away from Google and putting it into the laps of Chinese users. “No, I swear, they got to that site themselves.”
No, MG Siegler, what are you talking about?! Argh! You guys are TechCrunch! You’re supposed to know the situation better than this! *wail*
Update 2: If we haven’t spelled it out clearly enough, how about the Wall Street Journal?
Update 3: Think of it this way: Google is trying to meet the letter of Chinese law while violating the spirit of the Chinese law. Google knows this, the Chinese government knows this, and we’ll see if the latter gets tired of the game the former is playing.
- Hong Kong is allowed to operate under a different set of laws due to the “one country, two systems” agreement when Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 [↩]
- I can’t remember where and thus can’t offer a link. [↩]
- aka ICP, often associated with a number that is publicly displayed on many mainland Chinese websites. [↩]
- Remember, Baidu was sued for providing links to pirated mp3s but was cleared because they were search result links, and were not actually hosting the pirated mp3s themselves. [↩]