Google license to operate in China to expire at month's end

The tense standoff between Google and China could reach its conclusion in two weeks when the search engine giant must renew its Internet-service license.

Beijing's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology requires all Web companies to submit renewal applications by the end of March, according to reports.

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But while extensions are possible, the deadline could nonetheless present either Google or China a prime opportunity to make the next move in a fight over Web censorship rules that has spanned most of 2010.

Google announced in February it would cease abiding by China's historically tough content restrictions, even if that approach meant the search company had to suspend its business operations there indefinitely. The threat arrived in response to a massive January cyberattack that Google alleges originated at two schools in China.

But Chinese officials have hardly budged. The state has denounced the cyberattack and threatened to punish its leaders, but officials have stressed the breach did not originate locally. And while China has said it will respect Google's decision to cease business there, if the company so chooses, it has warned other website owners not to follow suit.

Consequently, Google could choose not to renew its license at the end of March, signaling an end to its search business in China. Alternatively, China could choose to reject Google's application, should the company file it, in an attempt to stop the company from shirking Beijing's censorship rules.

However, Google has mostly stayed mum on which course of action it will take. Rather, CEO Eric Schmidt has promised a resolution to the long-standing China dispute "soon."