Google Confronts the Great Firewall

In the second clash between the Internet search giant and the Chinese government, will freedom of speech win?

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

For centuries, the Yangtze River — the longest in Asia — has played an important role in China’s history, culture, and economy. The Yangtze is as quintessentially Chinese as the Nile is Egyptian or the Rhine is German. Many businesses use its name. But if you log on to the Internet anywhere in China, type the Chinese characters meaning "Yangtze River" into Google’s Hong Kong-based search engine, and click "search," the browser screen will go blank with an error message: "This webpage is not available." (Here is a screenshot taken this morning by an Internet user in Beijing.)

It’s actually not an error. This ridiculous level of censorship is the work of China’s national network-level censorship system, commonly known as the "Great Firewall." It has been configured to block all Google searches containing words that could potentially be used in politically sensitive contexts. Coincidentally, the Chinese word for "river" is the same character used in the surname of former President Jiang Zemin. Jiang’s name has been targeted by Chinese censors for much of the past decade for various reasons — most recently due to rumors about his health and potential role in political succession struggles. The Yangtze River itself, as well as organizations like Yangtze River Securities and Yangtze River University, are all collateral damage.

Google’s relationship with China’s censors has always been rocky. It is likely to hit a new rough patch after the company rolled out a new feature on Thursday that warns Chinese users when they type words that are known to set off their government’s censorship system. Now, when a user in China types the Chinese characters for "Yangtze River" into the search bar, a pop-up message warns: "We’ve observed that searching for [the character for river] in mainland China may temporarily break your connection to Google. This interruption is outside of Google’s control."

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.

When Google entered China in 2006 with a censored search engine, the company’s justification for complying with Beijing’s censorship demands was, ironically, to improve "user experience." Until was established inside China, Chinese searchers faced annoying network blockages every time they clicked on politically sensitive links in their search results. In contrast, companies operating inside China — along with all Internet companies with license to operate inside China — are largely exempted from Great Firewall censorship in exchange for carrying out their own internal censorship: removing results for websites and search terms on instructions from the authorities. Once Google agreed to self-censor, Chinese users were able to use the service without interference, though a note at the bottom of each page informed users that censorship was taking place in compliance with government requirements.

Then, in the wake of sophisticated cyberattacks originating from China in 2010, Google decided to redirect its Chinese search engine to Hong Kong, where it no longer modifies its search results according to instructions from government authorities, explains Dave Lyons, a Beijing-based information science researcher. "It’s outside of the mechanisms of information control, unlike other search engines which have local offices [in mainland China] and are required to comply with Chinese regulation."

Although the Chinese government consistently blocks most other Google services, including YouTube, Blogger, Google Docs, and Google Plus (click here to see which services are fully or partially blocked in China), it chose not to block the Google search completely, most likely because it had grown too popular with businesspeople, educators, and commercial elites. Instead, the censors have made it more difficult to use, causing Google’s market share in China to drop dramatically in the past two years. "There is still a core of [Google] users here," one Beijing-based advertising executive told me on condition that his name not be used due to sensitivities with government and client relationships, "but I believe it is largely limited to an already highly internationalized and self-selecting crowd."

The greatest beneficiary of this situation has been China’s home-grown search leader, Baidu, which carries out an extensive internal censorship operation in order to avoid trouble with the authorities. Searches from Beijing for "Yangtze River" conducted from Beijing on Baidu do not trigger a connection breakdown. (See a screenshot here.) The same searches from Beijing on Microsoft’s Bing and Yahoo China are similarly unmolested because both companies carry out self-censorship from within China. In other words, you can get results for, say, "Jiang Zemin," but only the ones the Chinese government wants you to see.

Google’s new exposé of the Great Firewall is unlikely to do much to woo back users who have grown frustrated by the connection resets. "I don’t expect it will increase Google market share," says Lyons, "because it still puts the burden on users to modify their search terms, while those engines with local operations here in China will provide a more convenient user experience." Furthermore, those who are technically savvy and truly determined to use uncensored Google search can always use widely available circumvention tools to get around the Great Firewall.

Certainly, Google’s latest move in China is not in its short- or even medium-term commercial interest, any more than the 2010 decision to move its search engine operations out of China was good for market share. It makes much more sense, however, in the context of the company’s broader global strategy. Over the past two years, Google has taken a wide range of very public steps to align its global brand image with the cause of free expression. It has been vocal in speaking out against government censorship of the Internet all over the world, most recently in Thailand, where it criticized the country’s harsh lèse majesté laws. It is fighting government censorship demands in India. It is a founding member of the Global Network Initiative, through which Internet companies work to uphold human rights principles. It issues a Transparency Report documenting censorship and user information demands from governments around the world (including the United States). It recently convened a major conference called Internet @ Liberty, to which activists were flown in from around the world to "explore the most pressing dilemmas and exciting opportunities around free expression in the digital age."

Just this week, Vint Cerf, Google’s "chief evangelist" and one of the creators of the Internet, testified in Congress about proposals by China, India, Russia, and other states to put the web more firmly under the control of governments through auspices of the United Nations. The point is not that Google has no serious problems — it certainly does, particularly on privacy and data collection issues. The point is that when viewed in the context of Google’s global activities and statements, its decision to expose the Great Firewall looks very consistent with its image as an opponent of censorship and supporter of free speech.

But will China care? Writing on Twitter after news of Google’s Firewall Exposé began to circulate after midnight Friday Beijing time, Chinese blogger Michael Anti commented in Chinese: "this will cause another headache for the Chinese government." It is unclear how Beijing will choose to react, or whether the Hong Kong-based search service will now be blocked outright on the mainland. Close observers of China’s censorship strategies think this is a possibility, but only if the number of Chinese Google search users has dwindled to the point that the country’s business elites would not complain. Otherwise, "blocking it completely could cause a lot of complaints and would make the censorship even more obvious," says Martin Johnson, the Beijing-based co-creator of, a website that monitors Internet censorship from within China.

Johnson, who uses a pseudonym for fear of reprisals from the Chinese government, believes Beijing’s current strategy is to block new Google services as soon as they become available, well before they develop any meaningful Chinese following. For example, the only reason why GMail remains unblocked in China (although it is sometimes disrupted) is because too many business and government elites have come to depend on it to communicate with friends, family, and colleagues around the world. "They don’t want to repeat the GMail mistake — waiting too long to block it, giving the service so many users that they don’t dare block it anymore," he says.

But even if the government successfully blocked search, hundreds of millions of Chinese would remain dependent on another Google product: the Android mobile operating system. While Google no longer has a search engine operation inside China, it has maintained a large presence in Beijing and Shanghai focused on research and development, advertising sales, and mobile platform development. Chinese mobile companies have become so dependent on Android that in approving Google’s acquisition of Motorola, which has a large manufacturing and sales presence in China, the Chinese government stipulated that Google must keep the operating system free and open-source for the next five years.

Like it or not, Google and the Chinese government are stuck in a tense, long-term relationship, and can look forward to more high-stakes shadow-boxing in the netherworld of the world’s most elaborate system of censorship.

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