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Google forced to change China approach--again

If Google wants to stay afloat in China it will have to stop automatically redirecting searchers to Hong Kong, and it's not clear that Plan C will work.

This is the new landing page for Google.cn, and the only thing you can do on this page is click that box in the middle--one giant hyperlink--to visit a special section of Google.com.hk.
This is the new landing page for Google.cn, and the only thing you can do on this page is click that box in the middle--one giant hyperlink--to visit a special section of Google.com.hk.
Screenshot by Tom Krazit/CNET

Google's delicate balancing act in China appears to be coming undone.

Google publicly declared its intention in March to move its Chinese-language Internet search operation in Hong Kong in hopes of bypassing censorship laws for companies that operate in mainland China, but the public showdown with the Chinese government never seemed destined for a happy ending. Google announced late Monday night that China will not renew its Internet Content Provider license--a key authorization scheduled to expire Wednesday--unless Google stops redirecting Google.cn visitors to Google.com.hk.

It seems unlikely that its newest strategy will pass scrutiny either. Instead of automatically redirecting Google.cn users, Google has created a landing page at Google.cn "where users can conduct web search or continue to use Google.cn services like music and text translate, which we can provide locally without filtering," Google said in a blog post. "This approach ensures we stay true to our commitment not to censor our results on Google.cn and gives users access to all of our services from one page."

However, the only thing on that landing page is a giant hyperlink to a special Google.com.hk site; visitors to that landing page can't actually do anything but either stare at the page or click the giant link in the middle to visit Google.com.hk. After they click through to that special version of Google.com.hk, some services, such as maps and translation, are available with a .cn domain, but news, images, and other services are directed through the .com.hk domain. Google.com.hk, reached directly through the URL field, appears to be a different site altogether.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the hour of its announcement, Google representatives did not immediately respond to a request for further clarification. It's impossible to see how this new approach will work: sure, Google isn't automatically redirecting Google.cn visitors anymore, but it sure isn't giving them a lot of options.

"Over the next few days we'll end the redirect entirely, taking all our Chinese users to our new landing page--and today we re-submitted our ICP license renewal application based on this approach," Google said. "We are therefore hopeful that our license will be renewed on this basis so we can continue to offer our Chinese users services via Google.cn," the company said, and it doesn't seem likely to find any takers on that wager.

China has been a headache for Google nearly from the moment it set foot in the country, perhaps naively believing it could change government policies bent on controlling the flow of information to its citizens by offering a quality Internet search service. Instead, it was forced to compromise its morals in order to offer a working service until it was attacked in what many security professionals believe was a cyberattack originating from inside of China that targeted Google intellectual property and e-mail accounts of critics of the Chinese government.