In a concise yet roundabout way, the Chinese government acknowledged on Sunday that it has indeed given the go-ahead for Google to continue operating as an Internet content provider in China.
The news of the approval came Friday, when Google--in its own concise yet indirect way--said that the ICP license had been renewed and that it would continue "to provide web search and local products to our users in China." That came as a one-sentence update to a blog post from June 28, some 12 days earlier.
On Sunday, Beijing confirmed the renewal this way: the official Chinese government Web site posted an item from the government-run Xinhua news agency citing an unnamed official of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, who said that the result of the ministry's annual checkup on Google was "Approved after Rectification."
Technically, the license that was approved was that of Beijing Guxiang Information Technology, the company that operates Google's China site. The previous license was set to expire on June 30, and the Xinhua post said that Beijing Guxiang submitted its application to the Information Ministry on June 29.
The approval was no sure thing. The unfettered access to the global Internet allowed by Google has long vexed the Chinese government. And indeed when Google set up operations in China in 2006, the Web giant reluctantly had to impose a measure of censorship on its search results. Over time, that proved vexing to Google, and in January of this year, the company provoked a showdown with Beijing by announcing that it would no longer censor search results. (On top of that, Google accused the Chinese government of being behind a series of Internet attacks on Google and other big businesses.)
But by June, Google had had to set up a workaround for search at its Google.cn site, requiring Chinese users to manually click through to special version of the company's Hong Kong site, after first having tried out an automated redirect. And in addition, by the end of the month, China had begun blocking the Google Suggest feature for search terms. Those were likely key elements of the "rectification" that spurred the Chinese government to move forward with the license renewal.
The Xinhua post on Sunday said that Guxiang has pledged to ensure that it exposes Chinese Web surfers to "no law-breaking content" and that all the content it does surface is "subject to supervision of government regulators." China's applicable telecommunications regulations prohibit, among other things, content deemed subversive, seditious, or pornographic.
Google's June 28 blog post--the one that was updated on July 9 with news of the license renewal--gave the company a chance to restate its principled desire to "stay true to our commitment not to censor our results on Google.cn," even as it makes what critics might see as a devil's bargain rooted in the bottom line: "Without an ICP license, we can't operate a commercial website like Google.cn--so Google would effectively go dark in China."
On Friday, the company said that "over the next few days" it would entirely put an end to its automated redirect to the Hong Kong site and instead take all Chinese users to the new Google.cn landing page, so by now that switchover may have taken full effect.
As my colleague Tom Krazit pointed out Friday in his assessment of the latest Google-vs.-China development, "so continues Google's odd dance in China"--a huge and still growing market of Internet and technology users that few companies can safely turn their backs on.