Google’s latest attempt to save its Chinese website appears to be nothing more than a final death spasm.
Since March, Google.cn has been automatically redirecting users to Hong Kong, where Google can offer up an uncensored web search.
This makes no difference at all for mainland users, in practice, since the searches then get censored by the government firewall as the data comes back into China.
But of course it allows Google to feel good about not personally doing the censorship.
According to Analysys International, the loophole has meant that Google’s advertising and page views have not suffered since the company started its head-to-head battle with the government in January. "Our research shows that advertising and page views actually increased," said Yu Yang, the head of the research house. "The redirection did not cause people much inconvenience," he explained.
But the government was annoyed by Google’s attempts to game the system and said it would remove the company’s Internet Service Provider license, which is up for renewal on Thursday.
Reading between the lines, I’m guessing that the government accused Google of not satisfying the main criteria for an ISP license, which is that you should have a commercial business in China. Google.cn had ceased to be a commercial business, it was just a link to the Hong Kong site.
To make Google.cn commercial again, Google has shifted its Maps and Music businesses back onto the site, even though the revenues from these two services are immaterial. If users then want to do a search, they can press a big button to send themselves back to Hong Kong manually.
The upside to this gambit is that Google has ticked all the boxes and that any users now have to manually redirect themselves. Google is no longer responsible for sending people to Hong Kong, the users choose.
The downside is that this patently transparent bit of tweaking is not fooling anyone. The loophole still exists, with one extra click, and if that’s what was annoying the government, it will continue to annoy them. With the added downside that the whole process is bothersome enough to send Chinese users fleeing in droves.
Analysys International says the whole sorry affair is doomed to failure and that the ISP license will not be renewed. However, they reckon Google will return to the mainland one day and that, in the meantime, the Hong Kong and US sites will continue to be accessible. Blocking the Hong Kong site, after all, is an admission that HK really isn’t part of China.
For Google, advertising and page views are likely to be badly hit, with increased traffic to Hong Kong not making up for the fall in traffic to Google.cn.