Google To Notify Users Censored By “Great Firewall of China”

By June 3, 2012

Image: Morguefile

New code on the Chinese version of Google will alert users who are about to search for a query that is likely to run afoul of Chinese censorship efforts, in a move that could stir up new tensions between the multinational search giant and authorities in the communist nation.

The company delicately avoided mentioning censorship, or implicating the Chinese government in the fact that a sensitive number of search queries do not load in the country.

“We’ve taken a long, hard look at our systems and have not found any problems,” wrote senior vice president of search Alan Eustace, in a blog post. “However, after digging into user reports, we’ve noticed that these interruptions are closely correlated with searches for a particular subset of queries.”

However, the move is likely to create problems for the company’s relationship with China, which makes broad efforts to control the flow of information in and out of the country – including a so-called “Great Firewall of China” that blocks content not approved by the state. In 2010, Google faced intense backlash from the Chinese government and state-approved media after it took measures to evade censorship in the country.

Now, the company appears to be trying out a higher road – or trying to avoid a similar debacle – by framing the changes as workarounds to a mysterious technical problem, rather than a direct affront to the state’s programme of censorship.

Eustace wrote that “starting today we’ll notify users in mainland China when they enter a keyword that may cause connection issues.”

“By prompting people to revise their queries, we hope to reduce these disruptions and improve our user experience from mainland China,” Eustace wrote. “Of course, if users want to press ahead with their original queries they can carry on.”

Workarounds are available to Chinese citizens who want to view censored sites, but they require some technical knowledge, and represent an unknown risk.

Google walks a difficult line between corporate strategy, information ethics, and government relations. In April, co-founder Sergey Brin made pointed remarks about efforts by Hollywood and totalitarian states, including China, to suppress the ideal of the open web. Notably, Brin said that while he once believed the internet was an inexorable force for reform and democracy, he now worries it can be used as a tool by oppressive regimes.

“I thought there was no way to put the genie back in the bottle, but now it seems in certain areas the genie has been put back in the bottle,” Brin said.

Ties between the United States and China were also strained recently when Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng fled the country with the assistance of the U.S. State Department.

Image: The Chinese internet is restricted by a "Great Firewall of China" (Morguefile)