BEIJING - Google has changed tack in China to address government complaints about its attempts to evade censorship, as it vied to get its business licence renewed in the world's largest online market.
The US web giant said it would stop automatically redirecting mainland Chinese users to an unfiltered site in Hong Kong, a process it began in March in response to censorship and cyberattacks it claims came from China.
"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 licence will not be renewed," Google's chief legal officer David Drummond said on the company's blog.
"Over the next few days we'll end the redirect entirely, taking all our Chinese users to our new landing page," he said, explaining that the new page on Google.cn links to the Hong Kong site.
Marsha Wang, a Beijing-based spokeswoman for Google, said the difference from the previous approach was that mainland users would have to manually click a link to access the Hong Kong site.
Wang insisted Google would continue to offer unfiltered search results, but did not comment specifically on how the new approach would satisfy government requirements.
Google's Drummond wrote users would be able to "conduct web search or continue to use Google.cn services like music and text translate, which we can provide locally without filtering".
Google's ICP licence comes up for renewal on Wednesday, local time, and it re-submitted its application based on what it called its "new approach", he added.
"This new approach is consistent with our commitment not to self-censor and, we believe, with local law," Drummond wrote.
Wang added: "We certainly hope to get the ICP renewal, but we are still waiting for the final decision."
Analysts said the move seemed to be a last-ditch attempt by Google to prevent authorities from withdrawing their ICP licence - but one which likely would not succeed.
"It's a Googly solution - an elegant solution... But for the Chinese government, it's more of a loophole," said Beijing-based internet consultant Bill Bishop, who blogs about China's internet on Digicha.com.
"It just means it's an extra step for Chinese internet users to access Google and will probably lead to a huge drop-off in traffic," he told AFP.
"It's weird how Google takes this public 30 hours before they get their official licence renewed because they know trying to shame the Chinese government publicly is not really a successful strategy."
Duncan Clark, chairman of tech consultancy BDA China, said Google's redirect put Chinese authorities in an awkward position because they lacked jurisdiction to intervene in Hong Kong, but the licence renewal was a different matter.
"Clearly aggrieved, the authorities have attempted now to show their power," Clark said.
The news comes after months of tension between Google and Beijing over the US firm's efforts to skirt an army of government censors who police the web for content deemed inappropriate or unacceptable.
In January, Google threatened to completely shut down its operations in mainland China over what it said were China-based cyberattacks, and said it was no longer willing to abide by the so-called "Great Firewall of China".
Two months later, it started re-routing Google.cn users to its unfiltered Hong Kong site.
Beijing reacted furiously, denying any role in the cyberattacks which Google said had targeted the Gmail accounts of Chinese dissidents and saying it was "totally wrong" to stop filtering its Chinese-language search engine.
Following Google's blog announcement, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters: "A foreign internet company operating in China should abide by Chinese laws and regulations."
Google has said it plans to maintain its sales, research and development teams in China, which has the world's largest online population of 404 million.
A spokesman for Baidu.com, China's NASDAQ-listed number one search engine, said the company was "caught by surprise" by its rival's announcement and was studying the situation.
- AFPBy Marianne Barriaux