Google search feature blocked in China, licence in limbo

Jun 30, 2010 by Allison Jackson
Google's Web search service in China has been "partially blocked", the Internet giant said.

A Google search feature remained blocked in China Thursday as the deadline for renewal of the US web giant's operating licence passed with no word from Beijing, amid a fractious row over censorship.

Google said it had yet to receive a response from the government in China -- the world's largest Internet market -- on its application to renew its Internet Content Provider licence, which expired on Wednesday.

"We are waiting to hear from the government," Jessica Powell, Google's Tokyo-based spokeswoman, told AFP.

The Xinhua news agency quoted an unnamed official in charge of Internet administration as saying the licence renewal application had been submitted late and government agencies were "using the time to go through procedures".

"A quick reply is expected soon," the official said.

The firm that administers Google.cn pledged in the application letter to "abide by the Chinese law" and "provide no law-breaking contents," the official added, according to Xinhua.

Calls to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the main regulator of China's Internet industry, went unanswered for a second straight day.

Google said Tuesday it would stop automatically redirecting Chinese users to an unfiltered site in Hong Kong, a process it began in March in response to state censorship and cyberattacks it claims came from China.

The change in tack in China -- which has more than 400 million Internet users -- was aimed at addressing government complaints about the censorship issue.

On Wednesday, Google said search queries produced by its Google Suggest function appeared to be blocked for mainland users in China, but that normal searches that do not use query suggestions were unaffected.

Google Suggest provides a user with suggested words as they type a query into the Google search box. Typing in the letters "ob," for example, may prompt a suggestion for "Obama."

AFP attempts to conduct searches on Google Suggest in mainland China on Thursday did not prompt any suggestions.

A web page maintained by Google on the accessibility to its services in mainland China, google.com/prc/report.html, listed its web search service as "partially blocked" as of Wednesday.

But on Thursday, the status was "fully or mostly accessible", as it had been on previous days this week.

It was not immediately clear, however, whether the change in accessibility was linked to the ongoing dispute with the Chinese authorities over censorship.

Google said Tuesday all mainland users would now be directed to a new landing page on google.cn, which links to the uncensored Hong Kong site.

"It's clear from conversations we have had with Chinese government officials that they find the redirect unacceptable -- and that if we continue redirecting users, our Internet Content Provider license will not be renewed," Google's chief legal officer David Drummond said on the company's official blog.

"Without an ICP licence, we can't operate a commercial website like google.cn -- so Google would effectively go dark in China," he said.

Drummond said Google re-submitted its business licence application based on what it called a "new approach."

"This new approach is consistent with our commitment not to self-censor and, we believe, with local law," Drummond said.

The spat between Google and the Chinese government spilled over into the diplomatic arena, with Washington and Beijing waging a months-long war of words on the issues of Internet freedom and troubles faced by foreign firms in China.

State media on Thursday accused Google of being "two-faced" in its handling of the censorship issue.

"Google is trying to score political points in the West while benefiting from China's economy," said an article published in the overseas edition of the People's Daily, the ruling Communist Party's mouthpiece.

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