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Google fine-tunes its China weather vane

Securing the renewal of its Internet license in China shows Google is getting better at reading the Chinese government's wishes.

A simple change to that forces Chinese-language searches to click through to uncensored results was enough to get Google's license in China renewed.
A simple change to that forces Chinese-language searches to click through to uncensored results was enough to get Google's license in China renewed. Screenshot by Tom Krazit/CNET

Is Google learning how to read the wind in China?

Back in 2006, when Google was just getting into China for the first time, The New York Times published an inside look at the complicated process Google was required to follow in order to make sure it was censoring its search engine in line with Chinese law. The problem is that there is no real stated law as to what's banned and what's allowed; instead, sensitive topics would get hashed out in meetings with government officials termed "wind-blowing meetings," as in, the answer is blowin' in the wind.

Perhaps Google has learned how to take a hint. It announced Friday that the Chinese government has renewed its Internet Content Provider license, earning it another year of business in China but only after it agreed to make changes to the way it redirects users to its Hong Kong Web site, where Web search can be unfiltered under China's "one country, two systems" approach to Hong Kong.

Google's first solution to its China problem--which kicked off in January when Google declared that it no longer intended to censor search results in China--was to simply move Chinese-language search to Hong Kong in March. At the time, it admitted that it didn't know whether or not this would actually work, with Google co-founder Sergey Brin citing a "lack of clarity" around what exactly Google was allowed to do and what it wasn't.

Last week, Google showed signs that it has figured out how to read the Chinese government's wishes. When it became clear to Google that the government didn't like its method of automatically redirecting users to Hong Kong, it changed course, requiring them to actively click through to a special version of the site while on

Sure, that was actually the only thing they could do on, dominated by one gigantic hyperlink to the new site, but the requirement that visitors make a decision to click over--rather than having that decision made for them--was apparently enough to mollify the government.

So continues Google's odd dance in China. It's a particularly vexing problem for a company in which just about every decision--including where to put the soda machines in its offices--is determined by hard data.

There is no data set that Google can rely on to know whether or not its approach will appease the Chinese government. There's no algorithm that determines how government officials will receive Google's products.

And having provoked an intensely public showdown with the Chinese government in January, Google must work very cautiously. To even imply that Google is negotiating with the Chinese government would be received in some quarters as a betrayal of Google's principled stand against censorship. Yet, others would consider its reluctance to take care of its business interests in China as foolhardy, burning bridges in a country that already is the largest user of the Internet with less than a third of its population online. It appears Google has found a way to balance these interests without provoking an international incident over each development.

"At the end of the day, we believe Google will be able to maintain a presence in China," said Gene Munster, a financial analyst with Piper Jaffray that closely tracks Google's business. "We continue to believe this because we believe the Chinese government wants to promote social stability and an outright shutdown of Google would not achieve the goal of stability."

It's not clear, however, whether the price of peace involved giving up the Google Suggest technology prized by the company and useful for Chinese-language searchers seeking to avoid entering another character. Google won't comment on the coincidence, but China started blocking Google Suggest right around the time Google submitted its license for renewal and Google now breaks out "Web Search Suggest" as a separate item on its China availability dashboard. Google Suggest has provoked China's ire before over criticism that some of the suggestions surfaced by Google were too pornographic.

With each change to its China strategy, Google forces itself further into a corner, trapped between its public pledge to avoid censoring search and its desire to remain relevant in what will be one of the 21st century's most important Internet markets. It appears to be holding out hope that laws and mores will one day change in China.

But until then, charting a course in China will require Google to play a delicate game of diplomacy, algorithms be damned. Google's future in China will require it to gauge the wind not only in the offices of China's information ministers but at home, in order to know exactly how far it can bend.

There is no app for that.