Another chapter in the ongoing battle between Google and the Chinese government over censorship: the search engine has stopped automatically redirecting Chinese users to its uncensored Hong Kong domain, instead providing a landing page with a giant link on it to the Hong Kong site. Google admits it’s a ‘subtle change’, but it hopes it will be enough to get its internet content provider licence renewed. Commentators don’t seem so optimistic and the question remains: how far is Google willing to compromise to tap into the fast-growing Chinese market?
Not surprisingly, Google has been warned by Beijing that continuing with its current policy would put its ICP licence – due to expire shortly – at risk. Without this, warns senior VP David Drummond: ‘Google would effectively go dark in China.’ But the company's squabble with the authorities really dates back to January, when Google stopped self-censoring after it accused China of launching a ‘sophisticated’ attack on human rights activists’ Gmail accounts (as well as Google computers and infrastructure).
Now you might think this is a slightly half-hearted, low-fi effort from one of the world's biggest companies. Indeed, cynics might suggest that with a market share of just 30%, well behind top local site Baidu, Google has decided that losing its licence would be an easy (and PR-friendly) way to bow out of the market without having to admit defeat.
On the other hand, Drummond insists Google's exit is ‘a prospect dreaded by many of our Chinese users, who have been vocal about their desire to keep Google.cn alive’. And, as the BBC’s Tim Weber points out, for a company that claims to ‘organise the world’s information’, a great big China-shaped hole in that information could be a bit embarrassing. And since China has the fastest-growing population of internet users in the world, bowing out now could also turn out to be a big commercial mistake in the long run.
China isn’t the only market Google has been having problems with. Last month, it was forced to admit that it had ‘screwed up’ after it was discovered the company’s Street View cars, which photograph the world’s roads, had been collecting data sent over unsecured wifi networks too. Apparently, the data included emails and passwords – enough to spark an investigation by the Metropolitan Police.
However, its problems with the authorities in China could have more far-reaching implications...
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