Google's future in China still uncertain

BEIJING - Google's application for renewal of its licence to operate in China, the world's largest internet market, is still under review, a company spokeswoman and a government official said.

The US web giant, embroiled in a row with Beijing over state censorship, is awaiting word that its Internet Content Provider licence - vital to its operations in a country with more than 400 million web users - is still valid.

Google China spokeswoman Marsha Wang, who said the company was still awaiting a final decision, explained that its ICP licence remains valid as long as the government has not expressly rejected it.

"The licence runs till 2012. The licence needs to be checked every year," Wang told AFP.

"Everything will be as usual if the company passes the check," she said, however adding that the government could opt to cancel the licence ahead of the 2012 deadline.

"We have not received any information that it is invalid now," Wang said.

An official with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the main regulator of China's internet industry, told AFP that Google's application was still under consideration.

"We need time to review because they submitted the documents quite late," said the official, who asked not to be named. He added that he could not say when a reply could be expected.

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

All mainland users are now directed to a new landing page on google.cn, which links to 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 licence will not be renewed," Google's chief legal officer David Drummond said on the company's official blog.

"Without an ICP licence, we can't operate a commercial website like google.cn - so Google would effectively go dark in China," he said.

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

A web page maintained by Google on the accessibility to its services in mainland China, google.com/prc/report.html, yesterday listed its web search service as "partially blocked" for the past week.

AFP attempts to use the Google Suggest function, which provides users with suggested words as a they type a query into the Google search box, in mainland China were unsuccessful.

- AFP

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