At risk of losing its commercial license to operate in China, Google is taking a step back from its tough stance against online censorship in that country.
The search giant announced late Monday that it will no longer automatically redirect Web users in mainland China to the Hong Kong version of its site where it operates beyond the scope of Chinese censorship laws.
"This redirect, which offers unfiltered search in simplified Chinese, has been working well for our users and for Google," David Drummond, Google's (NASDAQ: GOOG) chief legal officer, wrote in a blog post. "However, 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."
The license is up for renewal June 30 and without it, "Google would effectively go dark in China," Drummond said.
Google's standoff with China began in January, when the company described a wave of cyberattacks targeting it and more than two dozen other U.S. companies, as well as an effort to hack the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights advocates. Google said that the attacks emanated from China and threatened to shutter its operations in that country if it couldn't deliver Web content free from the content restrictions that block sites the government deems objectionable.
Then in March, unable to reach an accord with the Chinese government, Google announced plans to automatically redirect traffic from the mainland Google.cn site to Google.com.hk, where it offered search results in simplified Chinese.
Now, Google is phasing out the automatic redirect, which came under sharp criticism from Chinese officials at the time it was implemented and ultimately proved untenable for Google to continue operating with an Internet Content Provider license on the mainland, the company said.
Instead, Google has set up a landing page on Google.cn that links to the Hong Kong site, offering Chinese users the full complement of Google's online services while offering unfiltered, local content.
"This approach ensures we stay true to our commitment not to censor our results on Google.cn and gives users access to all of our services from one page," Drummond said.
Google has already begun steering a portion of users on the mainland to the landing page and said that it will phase out the automatic redirect entirely over the next couple days.
The company submitted its application to renew its license to Chinese authorities on Monday. It remains unclear if they will accept the company's modest change as consistent with the law or reject Google's application, which would likely trigger a fresh wave of calls for a tougher stance toward China among U.S. lawmakers.
Google already received something of a hero's welcome in testimony before congressional panels earlier this year to discuss the China standoff. At one proceeding, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) vowed to renew the push for legislation that would establish a code of conduct for Internet companies operating in foreign nations with restrictive censorship rules.
Google's revelations about the cyberattacks last year caught the attention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who delivered a major speech on the subject of Internet freedom in which she called on the Chinese government to conduct a thorough and open investigation.
State Department officials have since said that issues of Internet freedom are "on the table" in every meeting U.S. diplomats hold with foreign dignitaries.