Rights group urges support for Google in China stand-off

WASHINGTON - A prominent human rights group has urged governments and technology companies to support Google as it seeks the renewal of its business license in China.

"Governments that are very concerned about the freedom of the internet should absolutely step up now in terms of sending a message to the Chinese government," said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China.

"Governments and the industry should send a very clear message to China that it must provide a business environment for foreign companies that doesn't force them to violate human rights," she said.

"Google is standing there alone," she said. Others "must step up to the plate and address this as a collective industry internet challenge. They can't just say it's a Google problem."

Google today said it would stop automatically redirecting mainland Chinese users to an unfiltered search site in Hong Kong, a process it began in March in response to censorship and cyberattacks it claims came from China.

Instead, mainland users who visit Google.cn would have to manually click a link to access the Hong Kong site.

"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 (ICP) licence will not be renewed," Google's chief legal officer David Drummond said on the company's blog.

"This new approach is consistent with our commitment not to self-censor and, we believe, with local law," Drummond wrote.

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.

Human Rights in China's Hom said "what Google appears to be trying to do is this technology manoeuvre that preserves and gives them a shot at getting their license renewed."

"They're not changing the picture of what people can get, they're changing a little bit how they get to it," she said.

"Whether that's going to go down with the Chinese authorities is another question," Hom said. "It's hard to predict."

Google's decision met with a mixed reaction in technology circles.

Writing on popular US technology blog TechCrunch, M.G. Siegler said Google is "sort of backing down" and described it as a "little disappointing."

"Google's position is clearly that they're not ready to fully give up on China just yet," he said.

"While they're still refusing to censor (which Chinese law requires), they are willing to stop the redirect which China finds 'unacceptable,'" he said.

"The power of Google's initial message was anchored by the fact that they said they were ready to leave China and shut down google.cn if it came to that," Siegler said. "Now that it has come to that, and it's clear they're not going to do that anytime soon, it's just a little disappointing."

Jacqui Cheng at another technology blog, Ars Technica, expressed doubt the Chinese authorities would accept the new arrangement.

"Google thinks this might be enough to appease the government and get them to renew Google's ICP license," Cheng wrote. "We'll see. Google is trying to have its cake and eat it, too; the Chinese government, while sometimes deluded, is not stupid."

- AFP

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