Google License To Operate In China Questioned; Will Disclosure Have To Go?

"Google has no license for China service: newspaper" from Reuters covers new questions on whether Google is able to operate legally in China. That seems absurd given the worldwide coverage of Google bending to the Chinese government's censorship demands last month. The fracas also raises questions on whether Google will find that it can no longer even disclose that censorship is happening, something that is the company's best defense against critics that say it shouldn't filter results.

The Reuters article covers a Beijing News report saying that Google doesn't have an Internet Content Provider license needed to operate in China. Google says it uses the ICP license of a local company, which Google says is common practice. It also says the ICP number is listed at the bottom of its search results on Google China.

I don't see the number on search results pages, but I do see one at the bottom of the Google China home page, like this:

京 ICP证050124号 

I don't recall seeing this number before on the page, but the cached copy of Google China shows it was in place at least as of Feb. 17, so it wasn't just slapped up in response to today's news. Checking further, I have a locally cached copy showing the number in place as of Jan. 25.

China's Ministry Of Information is said to be "concerned" and investigating the situation. It boggles the mind that the Ministry Of Information might not have realized that Google believed it was operating legally in China. There's simply no way anyone concerned about controlling the internet in China could have missed the worldwide publicity about Google new site. Heck, Google was rapped in US congressional hearings last week about bending to China laws.

If the Ministry Of Information really does find Google is unlicensed, then what on earth was it doing to police the Chinese internet over the past month? How could it miss something like that? And who exactly is giving Google its marching orders on stuff to censor?

As it turns out, according to this AP article, the ministry is aware that Google isn't using its own license. Whether that's legal or not is what's being investigated now, it appears.

In all likelihood, the entire thing will blow over into a non-issue. I doubt China's going to suddenly kick Google out. But in a longer version of the Reuters story, there's something that might be a bigger issue for Google, the idea that the disclosure it's doing of censorship might come under pressure to be ended. Says Reuters:

The China Business Times, a business paper with a sometimes nationalist slant, blasted Google for even telling users that links are censored.

"Does a business operating in China need to constantly tell customers that it's abiding by the laws of the land?" it said, adding that Google had "incited" a debate about censorship.

The paper likened Google to "an uninvited guest" telling a dinner host "the dishes don't suit his taste, but he's willing to eat them as a show of respect to the host".

It'll will be interesting to see if other papers and media outlets put pressure on Google to remove disclosure, which in turn could cause the Chinese government to declare that it has to go. If so, Google has a serious problem. Providing disclosure is a key element to it justifying the censorship it does for the Chinese government, as it explained once again in last week's congressional hearings.

For more on Google's controversial entry into China, see these past articles from us:

Want to comment or discuss? Please visit the Google Agrees To Chinese Censorship thread at our Search Engine Watch Forums.