Google has found itself forced to respond to allegations that it is running its Google.cn site, launched in January, without the license necessary to operate in China. The new controversy comes on the heels of strong criticism of Google in the U.S. for acquiescing to Chinese demands to censor search results so that words such as "democracy" and "Tiananmen Square" are removed.
The current debate follows a published report in the Beijing News that the search giant did not have the Internet Content Provider (ICP) license required to operate a Web site in China. The report noted that the Ministry of Information Industry, the regulatory agency responsible for the Internet in China, first became "concerned," then began a formal investigation.
According to a Reuters news report, the China Business Times, another newspaper, has stated outright that "under China's policy framework for the Internet, Google.cn is clearly unlawful."
For its part, Google said that all of its documentation is in order, pointing out that, like other Internet companies operating in China, its ICP license is held by a partner, Ganji.com, a Chinese classified ad provider.
"Google has a partnership with Ganji.com through which we have the required licenses to operate the Google.cn service in China," said a Google spokesperson. "Google clearly displays its ICP license number on the Google.cn site."
A bevy of Internet companies that are located outside of China, including eBay and Yahoo, have similar licensing arrangements with their own Chinese partners. In fact, according to legal analysts, Chinese law prohibits a foreign investor in an Internet company from obtaining an ICP license, which means that partnerships like these are sometimes obligatory.
After being raked over the coals by human-rights groups and several members of Congress following its announcement that it would comply with Chinese government demands that search results on Google.cn be censored, the company now is taking heat from the Chinese press as well, but for a very different reason.
The China Business Times has taken issue with Google's practice of disclosing each time certain search results have been removed due to Chinese law. "Does a business operating in China need to constantly tell customers that it's abiding by the laws of the land?" the paper asked, comparing Google to an uninvited guest.
Google has consistently defended its adherence to Chinese law. Although doing so conflicts with the company's general philosophy to "not be evil," Google's stance, as explained in recent Congressional hearings, is that the service provided prior to the deployment of Google.cn was unreliable and meant the company was failing in its mission to "make the world's information accessible and useful to Chinese Internet users."
Creating a local presence in China meant that the company needed to acquire the ICP license. In order to do so, the company maintains, it had to comply with the regulatory requirements to filter and remove links to content that is illegal in China.
During his testimony before the House Committee on International Relations, Elliot Schrage, vice president of Global Communications and Public Affairs at Google, differentiated between the local Chinese site and its previous incarnation, attempting to point out that Google.cn is, in fact, a service offered in addition to Google.com, which remains open and unfiltered, in China.
Following the Law
The company has maintained consistently that it has complied with normal business practices that demand that a company follow the laws within the locale in which it operates. For instance, in the U.S., France, and Germany, the company is obliged to remove certain information.
In the U.S., the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) requires that the company not provide information that is currently in litigation because of copyright-related issues.
In practice, this means that the DMCA sometimes forces Google to remove the contents of a particular page. When a user searches for information that would have included that page, the company issues a notice at the bottom of the search results to indicate that not all data has been provided because of DMCA restrictions.
In Germany, companies are not allowed to show Nazi-related material. And in France, Nazi information, in addition to other kinds of data, is prohibited. The company has said that, in the interest of consistency, it is obliged to follow the same disclosure policy in China that it has in other countries.