Like most relocations, the recent move of Google’s Chinese service to Hong Kong has not been painless. On Monday, Google said that its mobile services in China were being partially blocked. Then, yesterday evening, much of Google’s search services were unavailable in mainland China. Many users reported that searches made from the google.com.hk page resulted in a resetting of the Internet connection, meaning no results were displayed. Browser error messages appeared regardless of what was being searched.
Some saw the disruption as the Chinese government’s eventual blocking of the Hong Kong site, the expected response to Google’s re-routing last week.
Initially, Google took the blame, saying that its own internal changes had conflicted with the filtering of the Great Firewall. The FT reported that Google had
configured its servers by accident in a way that made all its traffic appear to involve an organisation banned by the Chinese government. This had led to an automatic blocking of its search results by China’s “Great Firewall”, which filters information coming into the mainland.
The organisation in question was Radio Free Asia, a human rights and free speech radio station, also referred to as RFA. Coincidentally, a string of characters Google had introduced to all its search queries globally to improve results included the letters “gs_rfai”. Google said that the GFW had associated the letters ‘rfa’ with Radio Free Asia, resulting in the lockdown.
Yet, this being China and the reality never being quite simple, the events took a twist. Some hours later, Google attributed the problem to the GFW itself, claiming that the server configuration had occurred a week ago, thus could not have caused Tuesday’s fiasco. To quote Forbes’ Andy Greenberg, “China just happened to tweak its censorship of Radio Free Asia today, which sent Google searches into the ether.”
The convoluted events cap a sequence of icy tensions continuing to mount. As with the Google-China saga in its entirety, this week’s ongoing confusion reiterates the unpredictable and intricate workings of China’s censorship machinery.
Conspiracy theories are also hovering. According to Forbes’ Taylor Bulley,
China momentarily changed its RFA censorship purposefully in a manner that would give Google a taste of what it’s like to lose its China traffic without actually blocking Google. That might be a maneuver to let the PRC save face internationally and still give Google a chance to come back to the negotiation table with China’s cadres. (Google isn’t likely to compromise at this point, of course, but China wouldn’t have lost anything by trying.)
But the key issue is indeed that any chance of compromise is slim. While I do not buy the argument that the manoeuvre could have given Google a chance to negotiate (especially if a negotiation is not even on the cards), giving Google a taste of its own medicine seems plausible: saving face is certainly a top priority for the PRC, not least during this time of extra criticism.
In the meantime, the WSJ posits that, while a permanent blockage of Google’s searches by China may always be possible, it would not be an ideal move:
[it] would deal a sharp blow to the company’s hopes of continuing to operate part of its business in the country after dismantling its censored Chinese site. Google said last week that it hoped to maintain its music search and maps services in China, along with sales and research-and-development operations.
Many analysts have believed Beijing would stop short of that [permanent blockage] for fear of infuriating Google’s tens of millions of regular Chinese users, not to mention foreign businesses that require access to information.
What remains certain is that tensions are continuing to unfold murkily, not least thanks to another reminder of the difficulties that Internet companies in China face. As early as last Thursday, less than three days after google.cn’s relocation, the Yahoo e-mail accounts of at least a dozen rights activists, academics and journalists covering China were hacked. Upon trying to access their accounts, victims received an automated message that read, “we have detected an issue [with your account].”
Speaking to AP, Clifford Coonan, China correspondent for The Independent and the Irish Times, said,
I’d just be interested to see if anyone in the business community or outside of journalism and academia has had the same problem, then it might be less sinister (…) It’s obviously annoying, but if it’s just journalists and academics, that’s scary.
It is too soon to tell, however, whether this addition to the chain of events mirrors something more than a simple concoction of bad timing and coincidence.