Censorship and License Lapses: Is Google Really About to Pull Out of China?

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This past weekend, the Financial Times caused a stir when it reported that there was a “99.9 per cent chance” that Google was going to pull out of China, according to a Google insider. Now, despite official denials, Google is dropping hints left and right that it actually intends to do so.

To the left: it appears that Google has stopped censoring some of the content that it has for years, including the infamous photo of the man blocking the tank during the protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989. (Reproduced in Google.cn image search results, above.)  To the right: last night, Google missed a deadline to reregister as an Internet Content Provider in China, a necessary designation under Chinese law to provide search services within the country.

NBC News plumbed Google’s Chinese search and found that a number of formerly banned searches had been allowed, although Google still denied making any changes to its policy:

Web sites dealing with subjects such as the Tiananmen Square democracy protests, Tibet and regional independence movements could all be accessed through Google’s Chinese search engine Tuesday, after the company said it would no longer abide by Beijing’s censorship rules.

Despite a report in the China Daily that Google China was still filtering content on its search engine and the firm’s own insistence that its policies had not changed, people in Beijing found that it wasn’t necessarily the case.

However, a Google spokesman in the U.S., Scott Rubin, told the U.S. that censorship had not stopped and would not confirm whether Google.cn might close. “We have not changed our operations in China,” Rubin said by phone from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California.

Meanwhile, The Guardian discovered that Google had missed a key license deadline to renew their ICP status, although they got a similar denial from Google:

Google missed a deadline to re-register as an “internet content provider” (ICP) in China last night, which observers say is a sign that it is preparing to shut down its search engine there.

Google UK denied the reports, saying that the ICP licence – required by the Chinese government for companies which want to operate a website inside the country – only has to be renewed annually before the end of March. “It’s a bit early for such speculation,” said a spokesman.

If Google wishes to continue operating inside China it would have to make a late registration for an ICP licence or to shut down the search engine inside Chinese borders.

Taken by themselves, neither of these two data points would really be damning evidence of Google’s intentions in China; together, they’re hardly bulletproof, but they do seem like indicators for a China exit strategy on Google’s part, coming one after another as they have. Google’s insistent denials come across as odd in light of the increasingly noisy scuttlebutt behind the scenes, but in light of the inevitable messy showdown to come, they may be its only option at present.

Related: Google.cn to be shut down: “99.9 per cent” chance

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