Controlling the flow of online information is like trying to win at Whack-A-Mole. Sure, you may nail the mole right in front of you, but there are so many more holes and so many more critters that there's only so much resistance you can provide.
That's where we are with Google's ongoing battle with China over search results — and we're reaching an important deadline.
Back in January, Google announced it wasn't willing to go along with Chinese demands to control (read: censor) the search results provided by Google.cn. Instead, Google adopted a Whack-A-Mole strategy: Anyone attempting to use Google.cn for the last several months has been automatically directed to Google.com.hk in neighboring Hong Kong, where Google's servers aren't censored or filtered.
China's response has been to threaten to put away its mole mallet and take out the flamethrower. Google's internet content provider license — essentially, its license to do business in China — expires Wednesday and is yet to be renewed.
"Without an ICP license, we can’t operate a commercial website like Google.cn — so Google would effectively go dark in China," David Drummond, Google's senior vice president for corporate development, wrote Monday in the company's official blog.
Google's response to this latest threat has has been, well, to allow limited mole-whacking. Some Google.cn users are now being presented with a search page that has a link to Google.com.hk instead of an automatic redirect. This allows Google to use China-based services "like music and text translate, which we can provide locally without filtering," while providing an easy way for everything else to be searched outside of Chinese control, Drummond wrote.
Google is hoping this rather fine difference will be enough to keep its license.
"The difference is a mouse click. You have to make the choice to twitch that muscle," says NPR's Anthony Kuhn, who is reporting on the controversy.
China has had little official response so far. Kuhn says the nation's foreign ministry has issued a statement saying companies are welcome to do business there "according to Chinese laws."
"It's not clear at all that China will buy this, but it's something at least that they can continue to negotiate over," Kuhn says.
And so, we wait for a resolution as Wednesday's deadline nears. But those moles are very, very resilient.
"I suppose anything could happen," Kuhn says. "This is clearly not the end of the story."