I’m a proud man, but I know when to admit defeat, and after reading a whole bunch of press accounts of the latest spat between Google and Beijing, I’m still kind of in the dark. I think I’m getting hung up on their business model, which I guess I don’t understand as well as I thought. Their corporate structure, regulatory licensing, and various other applicable Chinese legal issues — no problem. But the business itself . . . I think I need a little help.
News flash. For those of you who spend most of your time living under rocks, eating moss and drinking rainwater, you may be unaware that Google.cn decided to suspend its self-censorship of search results in March, at which time they were politely told by the government here that since that was against the law, it might be a good idea to stop the domestic Google.cn service.
Google in fact did so, sort of, by redirecting users to its Hong Kong site. If my understanding is correct, mainland users are getting pretty much the same experience they would get as if they accessed Google.com, which is often what I do when I need a little English search engine goodness.
Sites offshore do not have to censor, but their contents are still subject to the Great Firewall. This means that 1) if I type in a forbidden search term, my attempt to access Google will result in a crash that will not reset for a minute or two; and 2) even if I do get search results that include forbidden topics, when I try to click on those sites (assuming they are blocked), I will be frustrated in the attempt.
Similarly, if I do an image search on Google.com, there are often a lot of blank image results, no doubt naughty stuff that I shouldn’t look at. I often wonder, though, why there are so many blocked images that pop up from the search of keywords like “income gap,” “RMB value,” and “copyright infringement.” Just what sort of twisted stuff am I missing?
Anyway, I had assumed that the Hong Kong redirect basically resulted in the same thing. Maybe I was wrong? I still can’t figure it out.
Beijing certainly doesn’t like it. Even though the government can still filter sites or pages via the GFW, it still doesn’t want Google.cn redirecting to results on Google HK. Google’s fallback position seems to be the change it from a direct link to an indirect one (users are sent to the HK page itself for searching). Somehow I doubt that this distinction is going to be persuasive.
So I’m wondering, why should Beijing care if folks here can get to Google HK? They can get there directly by typing in that URL anyway, and there are plenty of other Google sites, including the .com, that operate in the same fashion. The draw for the HK site, of course, is the Chinese language capability and search scope, but let’s put that aside for the moment.
And then I realized something when I put my lawyer hat back on. Google’s current problem is that it is applying for a renewal to its ICP license, a mandatory regulatory approval that all similar sites must obtain to do business here. As long as Google follows China law, it should be able to get its ICP license renewed.
But wait. Yes, back in March when they decided to stop filtering, they shut down the local search service. However, in redirecting to the HK site, what exactly was the company doing? What exactly is Google.cn these days, as far as its operations are concerned?
This is where I frankly get confused. Google.cn is not a search engine any longer. The information you get from that site is really coming from Hong Kong (in fact, users are accessing the information from the HK site). Given that reality, Google is still asking the government to recognize it as a China mainland site that is deserving of an ICP license so it can continue to sell ads.
I don’t get it. If I went out tomorrow and set up a U.S.-based web site that was chock full of content, and then I set up a Chinese company that did nothing but redirect to that U.S. content, there’s no way I’d get an ICP license approved. Despite my attempt at getting local revenue, I would not really be operating as a local web site — my server would be in the U.S.1
One further issue. What should the Chinese government do with Google’s pending application? I’m no fan of censorship, but if Google is not really operating a Chinese site, then they shouldn’t get an ICP license. I feel like I’m missing something here, but that’s where I am at the moment.
If I take politics into account, then I’m definitely going to piggyback on Shaun Rein’s advice to Beijing:
The smart move would be to delay making any decision on Google’s license approval until the issue dies down again in the overseas press. It should neither approve nor deny for the moment, but let the status quo continue.
Makes a great deal of sense. I suspect that Shaun is predicting a negative result for Google, otherwise a delay of that nature would be unnecessary. At this point, I’d have to agree with that as well. Sure, a delay on the regulatory approval would only benefit the government, and besides, the way things are going for Google.cn right now, there might not be a hell of a lot left in a few months anyway.
If anyone would like to educate me on Google’s China business model and fill in some gaps, feel free to comment, send me an email, or look for me lurking on Twitter (@chinahearsay). In the meantime, I’ll have to be content with reading Elizabeth Lynch’s excellent post on Google at China Law & Policy.
- Yes, I understand that there are some exceptions. But generally, if you are running an online business in China and have an ICP license, your server should be here. [↩]