Google’s long goodbye

Baruch: Today, another round of derivative punditry: There is much reading of tea leaves re Google’s reading of tea leaves re what Chinese authorities really think of Google’s continued web presence in mainland China.

What we know:

Chinese authorities do not look kindly upon the automatic redirecting of a locally-hosted, licensed website with the .cn suffix (google.cn in this case) to a non-.cn website (google.com.hk). China-based sites that have or want a government-issued Internet Content Provider (ICP) license need to be used for their stated purpose. Redirecting is not a valid activity for such a site.

This is not an arbitrary Google-only rule. I was made aware of it last year when my own China-based web project was about to go live — the ICP license was still pending as launch day approached, so we mooted a plan B where the URL would redirect to content on a non-Chinese server. The idea was nixed after we were told by government officials this would be a bad idea. (Fortunately, our ICP license was granted just in time.)

Now that Google’s ICP license is up for renewal, the strategy Google came up with in January March to serve uncensored search results to mainland Chinese netizens is found lacking. This automatic redirecting business has got to go.

What Google is replacing this with is the next best thing (from its perspective): An image that looks just like its search page, but which transports you to the Hong Kong version as soon as you so much as breathe on it. The page looks like it has a search entry field, but it is fake. Click on it and you go to a real search entry field on google.com.hk.

This kind of fakery allows Google to argue that Chinese law has now been followed to the letter, even if the spirit has been taken out the back and shot. The argument better work: If Google’s application for the renewal of its license is declined, it might as well close down all web activity in China. Google needs this new ICP license by July 1. The application based on this new “manual” redirect method was made on June 28.

What we think:

I doubt Google’s trick will fly with the relevant authorities, who will see it for what it is — a politely stated fuck you. A manual redirect is still a redirect, with the site doing nothing else at all. What it does allow Google to do, however, is force China’s hand. Google won’t abandon its users by pulling out of China — it will insist on being pushed.

So yes, Google knows the game is up, which is why its Chinese users are being weaned off google.cn and onto google.com.hk. In China, Google users are among the sophisticated half of web users, and they know how to change a home page, default search location, or shortcut. All they need is a bit of a push to get them to change these defaults, and then they’ll be on their way. When google.cn goes dark, they’ll be fine.

The one thing that would really put a spanner in the works for Google would be if the Chinese government decides to block all non-Chinese google properties, out of spite. But that would just be vindictive, and it would anger far too many web-savvy Chinese users who tolerate their state’s web paranoia as long as ready circumvention options are available.

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