Faced with losing its licence to operate in China, Internet giant Google on Tuesday appeared to soften its stand in its censorship row with the government, stopping its practice of redirecting Internet users to its uncensored Hong Kong-based website.

In March, Google stopped censoring its Chinese-language search-engine Google.cn, ending four years of self-censorship and cooperation with the Chinese authorities, after a series of hacking attempts targeted the Google accounts of several Chinese human rights activists.

Three months on, with relations between Google and the Chinese government at rock-bottom, the company now faces losing its licence to operate in China, said its chief legal officer David Drummond in a statement on Tuesday. Google's licence to operate as an Internet Content Provider comes up for renewal on Wednesday.

“This redirect [to Hong Kong], which offers unfiltered search in simplified Chinese, has been working well for our users and for Google,” he said. “However, 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 …Without an ICP licence, we can't operate a commercial website like Google.cn — so Google would effectively go dark in China.”

As a compromise, Google on Tuesday re-launched a Google.cn “landing page”, ending an automatic redirect to the Hong Kong search-engine.

The new Google.cn does not contain a search option, but gives users the choice to connect to the uncensored Hong Kong-based site. Hong Kong operates under different laws from the rest of China, and largely allows the freedom of expression. Access to politically-sensitive websites is restricted to Chinese Internet users.

Whether or not the compromise move on Tuesday would save Google from losing its licence remained unclear, say analysts, given the strained relations between the two.

The stand-off has stirred debate among foreign companies based in China, who are required to abide by the government's extensive censorship laws that restrict access to any politically-sensitive information, including on Tibet, the Tiananmen Square protests, the banned Falun Gong sect or any overt challenges to the ruling Communist Party's authority.

Few Internet companies, however, have taken the government on. With more than 384 million Internet users, China has the world's biggest — and most lucrative — online market.

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