HONG KONG—Chinese officials are reviewing the operating license of Internet search giant Google, which official media report has promised in its renewal application to abide by Chinese laws.
According to the official Xinhua news agency, Guxiang, a company that operates Google’s Web sites in China, has submitted its application to the government.
The application included a letter promising to abide by Chinese laws, it added.
The report came after Google Chief Legal Officer David Drummond wrote on the company’s corporate blog that Google would stop automatically redirecting China users to its uncensored Hong Kong site in order to appease Beijing and secure the renewal of its Internet Content Provider (ICP) license.
However, Internet commentators said Google's current redirection procedure would be untenable without an ICP license anyway.
"If [Google] doesn't get this license, then of course [the authorities] won't allow them to continue to redirect the traffic from google.cn to the Google site in Hong Kong, because this is forbidden under Chinese law," said prominent Chinese blogger Isaac Mao, who plays a key role in online debates about Internet freedom.
Mao said the issue of redirection should be kept separate from that of censorship.
Google unexpectedly warned in January it might pull out of China over censorship concerns and after suffering a hacker attack it said came from within China.
"Censorship has nothing to do with the law, because it isn't inscribed into any Chinese legislation," Mao said.
"Google's threat to leave China is its way of saying that it is unhappy with censorship, and I think that this is a very rational way to go."
Google's license will end in 2012 but the deadline for renewal was the end of June.
Reluctant to leave
Hong Kong-based media commentator Leung-leung Ho said Google would be reluctant to leave China entirely.
"Even though Google doesn't hold a huge share of the search engine market in China, according to reports, their users are quite sophisticated. That's to say that there is a high proportion of educated people among them, and they have fairly high incomes," Ho said.
"These users are also very loyal to Google. If Google were to leave the Chinese market completely, this would mark quite a big loss for those customers, and for Google itself."
But he said he doesn't expect a full withdrawal of Google services from China to have a large impact on the country as a whole.
Liu Feiyue, Hubei-based founder of the China Rights Observer Web site, disagreed, saying that Google offers a unique service to Chinese netizens that would be sorely missed.
"Google is able to offer an extremely good service, with a huge volume of information from its searches," Liu said.
"Now, more and more people in China are using Google or even depending on [being able to access] a search engine like Google. If this domain name disappears, then of course a lot of netizens won't be able to access Google."
Chinese online author Ye Du applauded Google's approach in seeking a renewal of its license.
"On the face of it, there doesn't seem to be a problem," Ye said.
"If we are looking at the law superficially, there isn't a problem. [They] can just agree to abide by [China's] laws, but not the unwritten rules."
"It's in this area that I don't think Google will back down."
Google had been negotiating with Beijing about the right to continue hosting a search service in China without filtering results for China's 400 million Internet users.
Users visiting Google.cn have been redirected to Google.com.hk, where Google delivers an uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via servers in Hong Kong.
China requires Internet service providers to censor words and images that the ruling Communist Party says are illegal or unacceptable.
Even if the service continues and Google's license is renewed, the Hong Kong search results could still be subject to filtering by the Great Firewall, a nickname for controls imposed on overseas sites accessed by netizens in China that the government doesn't like, if searchers don't use circumvention tools.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Tang Qiwei and in Cantonese by Hai Nan. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated from the Chinese and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.