Google to Alert Users to Chinese Censorship-NYT

June 10, 2012

Michael Wines

The New York Times: June 1, 2012

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/02/world/asia/google-to-alert-users-to-chinese-censorship.html

 

Google has quietly upped the ante in a long-running dispute with the Chinese authorities over censorship, adding a software twist to its search page that warns users when they type a search term whose results are likely to be blocked in China.

The change, announced without publicity on Thursday on one of Google’s corporate blogs, is described as an improvement in the search experience for users in mainland China, who can be disconnected from Google without explanation when they try to open a Web page that was found using a censored search term.

But it also seems likely to irritate Chinese officials, who have already employed an array of techniques to punish the company since a clash over censorship led Google to move its servers to Hong Kong in January 2010.

Google’s market share in mainland China has plunged to about 17 percent from 35.6 percent, according to Analysys International, an Internet consulting firm specializing in China, as users have wearied of blocked Web sites and timeouts that can bar them from conducting new searches for more than a minute.

The announcement deftly sidestepped any allusion to censorship, saying only that users had been frustrated by error messages and disconnections and that Google engineers had “taken a long, hard look at our systems and have not found any problems.”

“However, after digging into user reports, we’ve noticed that these interruptions are closely correlated with searches for a particular subset of terms,” it stated. “So starting today we’ll notify users in mainland China when they enter a keyword that may cause connection issues.”

The blog post, by Alan Eustace, a senior vice president who oversees search services, said the company had analyzed 350,000 popular search terms to find words that were “disruptive queries.” Now, when users enter one of those terms and try to begin a search, they are presented with a yellow box stating that searching for the term “may temporarily break your connection to Google.”

“This interruption is outside Google’s control,” the message concludes. Users are then given a chance to enter a different search term.

Censorship often spills over from delicate topics to searches that would ordinarily be bland. The blog cites the example of the Chinese character for river, or jiang, which causes an error message or a timeout on Google.

The reason is that it is also the surname of a former Chinese president, Jiang Zemin, whose name, like the names of many other leaders, is banned from Google searches in China.

Users of Chinese search services like the popular Baidu, on the other hand, can search for “jiang” without difficulty, but only because government censors have already sanitized the results of a search to delete any problematic Web pages. As a result, the user sees a list of pages that gives no indication of censorship.

Chinese censors cannot fine-tune Google’s search results because they are produced by servers outside mainland China, and thus are out of the censors’ reach. So the government resorts instead to blocking any search or page that includes an offending term.

Mr. Eustace said users could often get around censorship by entering the banned term in English or Pinyin, the Romanized Chinese writing system.

A Google spokesman who asked not to be identified declined to elaborate on Google’s decision to warn users of blocked terms. But there is an approximate precedent: Before 2010, when Google maintained its servers in mainland China and its search results were sanitized, it included a note at the bottom of Web pages noting that some results had been blocked.

The spokesman also declined to address the prospect that the Chinese authorities might retaliate for Google’s action. Among other issues, the company has experienced unexplained problems with its popular Gmail service in recent years, and its Google Plus social networking service has been blocked.

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