Foreign Policy: Google Confronts the Great Firewall of China

Last week I wrote a piece for Foreign Policy analyzing Google’s decision to roll out a new feature warning Chinese Internet users if they type a search term that could trigger censorship by the government’s network-level “Great Firewall.” In a nutshell:

For the first time, Google is making it crystal clear to Chinese Internet users that their frequent connection problems while using its search engine are caused by the Chinese government, not by its own systems. According to Alan Eustace, Google’s senior vice president for knowledge, the purpose of this feature is to “improve the search experience in mainland China.” Users are given the option to “refine their searches without the problem keywords” in order to “avoid connection problems.” What Google executives won’t discuss — at least publicly — is the obvious fact that they are exposing the Chinese government’s censorship tactics in an unprecedented way.

Read the whole piece here.

Meanwhile, in the week since it was published there have been some developments and reactions worth noting. Google has declined to publish a list of all the characters and phrases it has found likely to trigger censorship. But that did not stop different groups from reverse-engineering the list. It is now available on greatfire.org (explanation in English) and atgfw.org (explanation in Chinese).  It also didn’t take long for the engineers working on the Great Firewall to ramp up the arms race by another notch, blocking Google’s nifty pop-up alerts warning users about censored terms. Here is how the anonymous team at greatfire.org, a website that tracks Chinese Internet censorship from within China, reported on the situation:

Within a day, they disabled the new Google feature by blocking the javascript filethat contains the code altogether. This of course makes us wonder what Google’s next move will be. It would be very easy to rename the file or to embed it on the html page making it more difficult to selectively block features.

Going forward, there is much more that Google can do. Rather than just informing users that a search query has been censored, they could offer ways to get around it. The most obvious one would be to redirect users (automatically or manually) to the encrypted version of Google which is still not blocked in China (https://www.google.com.hk).

The fact that this functionality was rolled out, and not just on Google Hong Kong but actually any Google search engine that is accessed from China, shows that Google is actively working on ways to get around censorship in China.

Independent Beijing-based technology researcher Dave Lyons, who I interviewed for my piece, has a more cynical take about Google and its motivations over at the rectified.name blog:

While many people in China know that Google doesn’t always work because of government blocking, I’d bet that the vast majority of Internet users don’t know, or care for that matter, because if you’re planning a vacation to [丽江] [LiJiang, in Yunnan Province] where you want to stay in a [锦江之星] [MianJiang ZhiXing, the name of a hotel] which search engine are you going to use? The one that says: “Sorry, can’t use those words” or are you instead going to use one of those nice search engines that just deletes any politically sensitive search results and serves up those travel links? So while Google describes the move as “improving our user experience from mainland China,” from a user perspective this doesn’t really change anything unless you’re a political dissident trying to find the latest banned words, like a broken soda machine that always gives you Fresca no matter what button you push now has sign saying “In need of service: all buttons serve Fresca.”

Chinese internet users truly committed to seeking banned or sensitive information for the most part already have circumvention tools, and will use the regular Google.com like they did before, so this doesn’t really help them much unless they want vague confirmation from Google that a term is blocked. And this isn’t likely to earn Google any new friends in the Chinese government, which it already sees as in cahoots with the US State Department. If Google were serious about this, they would develop their own built-in circumvention tools, but they won’t — because that’s a bridge too far — and so I can’t help but think that the real audience for Google’s move isn’t in China but in the halls of Internet governance organizations like the ITU and global users who, they hope, will start having warm, fuzzy feelings about Google as a fearless advocate for free speech. Good luck with that.

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