A View from David Talbot
The Extra Click Heard 'round the Search World
Google’s gambit pays off as China renews its license–but its Hong Kong site could still be blocked.
China has blinked in its tense battle with Google, renewing the search giant’s license to use its Chinese Internet address, Google.cn.
Thus caps seven months of intrigue that started in January, when Google announced it had been the target of China-based hacking, and intensified in March when the search giant carried out its threat to stop acceding to Chinese censorship requirements. At that time, Google started rerouting search traffic from Google.cn to its uncensored Hong Kong site, Google.com.hk. For users, this meant that search terms they entered would no longer be blocked by Google, as required in China as a condition of operating an Internet company there. But some resulting search returns could still be blocked, as always, by China-based filters run by the Chinese government. This re-routing to Hong Kong caused great irritation in Beijing, which called the approach “unacceptable.” So Google’s most recent move was to make Google.cn a simple landing page with an unusable search field. Clicking anywhere on the page, however, still took visitors straight to Google.com.hk where they can conduct their searches.
The “extra click” was a subtle difference, but apparently all Beijing needed to save face and not take the drastic step of actually blocking Google from using any Chinese web addresses. Such blockage would certainly have brought on global condemnation over the further closure of China’s Internet, which is censored, mainly by means of self-censorship by China-based companies. The question now is whether Bejing’s next move will be to add Google.com.hk to its list of blocked sites. “They didn’t block it after the redirect took place in March. If they wanted to block it, you’d think they would have done it then,” says Rebecca MacKinnon, a China Internet expert who is a visiting fellow at Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy. “But they could always block anything, at any time in the future, for any reason.”
While the political stakes were high for China, the corporate ones for Google were quite high as well. Last week, Yasheng Huang, a professor of Chinese economy and business at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, wrote me to say that “if Google does not get this license it will have collateral damage to its other operations in China. It operates an R&D center in China and its sales team will be hampered to sell ad space on its website. It will be marginalized further. The Internet, as global and as cross-border as it is, still has geographic roots.”