Google Tries To Save Internet License In China

Faced with the prospect of losing its Internet license in China, Google has announced it will no longer automatically redirect Chinese users to its unfiltered site in Hong Kong. Instead, Chinese users will have to click a tab on the Google site if they want access to the Hong Kong site. Will this plan be enough to satisfy China and win renewal of Google's license?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Google will find out today if China's going to allow it to keep doing business there. Google's license to operate is up for renewal and China has threatened not to renew it unless Google stops rerouting Internet searches to its website in Hong Kong.

Google began doing that a few months ago to avoid censoring its searches. The Chinese government wasn't happy. Now, to avoid losing its other businesses in China, Google has agreed to stop automatically rerouting its users. For the details, NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from behind the great firewall of China.

Good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: How hard would Google be hit if China decided not to renew its license?

KUHN: Well, it would probably mean the end of Google.cn, its China-based site, and with it it would probably lose its 30 percent share of the Chinese Internet search engine market and the ad revenues that go with it. And there are other services which Google provides in China like Gmail and Google Maps, which has a Chinese version.

Of course, that 30 percent market share is not that much, but it is a toehold and would represent, you know, future possibilities for Google. So it would be - they would take a substantial hit from this.

MONTAGNE: So this change that Google is making, what's the difference? I mean, what is it doing?

KUHN: It's a minor technical tweak, Renee. I'm looking at Google.cn right now. And all there is is a big logo in the middle of the page, and it says: We've already moved to Google.com.hk in Hong Kong and please bookmark the new site. And all you can do there really is click on the hyperlink and, bang, you're at the Hong Kong website.

Now, while it's true that that website is not censored in Hong Kong, the search results are filtered on their way into the Chinese mainland. So it's not like Chinese Internet users can just go to the Google Hong Kong website and get uncensored information. Content still gets blocked.

MONTAGNE: So is China's government impressed with this change?

KUHN: Well, they haven't commented on it directly. They were very unhappy about the automatic rerouting to Hong Kong. They saw it as sort of a flaunting of China's Internet policies and laws. You know, it's sort of a loophole, you could say, that there's this part of China - in other words, Hong Kong - that does not censor material and Google could use this to end-run censorship. And, you know, Chinese see this as the law. Internet searches must submit to content filtering.

MONTAGNE: So to the question of today's renewal of that license, what are the chances that the two sides might strike a deal or make a compromise?

KUHN: Well, the problem for China is that the issue has become so heavily politicized. A lot of conservatives in this country believe that Google has the backing of the U.S. government and that Washington is really using the Google issue to browbeat Beijing on the issue of Internet freedom of speech.

At the same time, you know, China could've blocked all of Google's activities, all of its website in China, and it hasn't done that. When Google announced the pullout in March, there was quite a wave of reports saying that this marked a chilling of the business climate for foreign companies in China. And China didn't really want that.

In the end, you know, everybody's watching to see. You have a government which has tremendous power over the Internet. And at the same time you have the world's most advanced and powerful search engine. And so it's quite a contest. And it's anybody's guess whether the two can reach an accommodation this time.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Anthony Kuhn. Thanks very much.

KUHN: Thank you, Renee.

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