Will Gmail be permanently blocked in China?

Gmail has been blocked in China from time to time in the recent days. GreatFirewall.biz monitors Gmail access every day. Here are some thoughts on why this is happening.

Why is Gmail access important in China?

Facebook.com, Blogspot.com and Twitter.com are all blocked in China (check out Top Sites). Chinese equivalents Renren, Weibo etc as well as all local email providers are all screened for sensitive keywords. Gmail, together with LinkedIn.com (recently blocked, then unblocked), provide important exceptions to this otherwise compact control of online activity in mainland China. Because connections are encrypted (the address starts with https://) the Great Firewall cannot know what users are writing about. If the authorities don't accept this, they can do two things: 1) Hack individual accounts. They've been accused of doing this on several occasions, eg on Jan, 2010 and March, 2011. 2) Close down the service altogether, an idea which they seem to be playing with now.

How many people use Gmail in China?

Google has a lot of competition in China. Baidu, QQ, Sina and 163.com are all more visited than Google.com (according to Alexa). They probably all have more mail users than Gmail too. I've been unable to find any sources of how many Gmail users there are in China. However, two reasons suggest they are plenty: 1) According to Alexa, Google.com comes in at 7th place of the most visited websites in China. However, most of the search is done on Google.com.hk (typing in google.com in China redirects here by default). This means that a big chunk, perhaps most, of the traffic to google.com in China is done to access Gmail. 2) According to my own little study. I looked at 31 Chinese people in my address book and came up with the following result. This is by no means accurate, but still an indication:

ProviderUsersProportion
Gmail2168%
Hotmail619%
Yahoo13%
163.com13%
Other (Chinese) provider26%
Total31 

If you have any better sources of the number of Gmail users in China, please comment.

Why hasn't Gmail been blocked already?

Facebook, Youtube, Twitter etc are all blocked so why not Gmail? One theory which I've heard many times is that important people use the service themselves. If you believe in the idea of reformist vs conservative factions inside the government, access to Gmail is probably an issue that is debated from time to time. The outages in the last few days suggest that the Gmail defenders might be losing influence.

What will happen if it's blocked?

While Facebook, Youtube, Twitter etc are major websites outside of China, they were never widely used here, and Chinese copycat websites have sprung up to replace them. If Gmail is blocked, shifting to another provider is more difficult - you have to change your email address, and you lose all your old messages and contacts. Will there be some sort of protest if it's blocked? Time will tell.

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Wed, Mar 19, 2014

Bing Bests Baidu Censorship

Abstract

Independent research from Xia Chu has shown that, in addition to non-China content, Bing censors a vast amount of content that is hosted inside China and which is not censored by China-based internet companies like Baidu. After communicating our issues with Microsoft, Bing removed certain censorship rules (kudos to Bing), but much work remains to be done.

We recently called for Microsoft to release its transparency report for Bing (as have others - full disclosure, Rebecca sits on our advisory board).  Microsoft has yet to respond to this request. But Xia’s independent research of Bing’s China censorship policy could be regarded as a de facto transparency report for the search engine.

In this thorough study, the results of which we have verified, Xia examined Bing's SERP (search engine results page) for over 30,000 sensitive and nonsensitive query terms, and launched these queries from both inside and outside of China. Comparing and examining these results, plus querying with special search operators, reveals unprecedented detail on Bing's China filtering practices.

The main findings from Xia’s research include:

  • Bing has a list of “forbidden” terms where no results are shown. 139 such terms have been identified.

  • Bing has a blacklist of websites that it never shows to China users. 329 such websites are identified. (5 have been lifted after our communication with Microsoft.)

Thu, Feb 13, 2014

Setting Bing's Broken Record Straight

We can also now trace complicit Bing Chinese censorship back to 2009 as highlighted by Nicholas Kristof. It looks like Microsoft has indeed changed its censorship mechanism after our research made headlines this week. But Bing is still seriously flawed on two fronts: its algorithm favors pro-Chinese government websites by default on all search terms in simplified Chinese and their front end mistakenly delivers explicit censorship of search results on some search terms for users from all over the world.

Wed, Feb 12, 2014

No error here: Microsoft deploying Chinese censorship on global scale

Microsoft says: “The results themselves are and were unaltered outside of China”. This is simply not true.

Tue, Feb 11, 2014

Bing practicing Chinese censorship globally

Our latest research indicates that Microsoft’s search engine Bing is censoring English and Chinese language search on its home page in order to exclude certain results. We have also noticed that Bing is practicing subtle censorship with search results. In both instances, Bing is filtering out links and stories that the Chinese authorities would deem damaging.

Thu, Jan 23, 2014

Massive blocking of foreign media in China

After Tuesday’s report Leaked Records Reveal Offshore Holdings of China’s Elite by ICIJ, China blocked a number of major newspaper websites. All websites below were blocked after publishing copies of the original report. They're all listed as the publishing partners for “Chinaleaks” stories on ICIJ's website. The Great Firewall rarely blocks non-Chinese websites. Many of them have published the Chinese version of the report which probably explains the unusual development.

Newspaper

Main Language

Article

http://www.icij.org

English

Chinese

http://www.theguardian.com

English

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From looking at details of my online English students in China, their e-mail addresses are (out of about 20 contacts):
1. Work e-mail addresses from company domain names
2. 163.com, with a grand total of 2! :D
3. One contact each at: qq.com, sohu.com, foxmail.com, gmail.com, hotmail.com

From speaking in group classes with many more students than I have in my contact list, I know that most of them have QQ accounts for instant messaging. I don't know if they also use those QQ accounts for email.

Thanks for sharing. We'd love to know more about:
1. What proportion of Chinese netizens use Gmail?
2. How many of them suspect or know that the recent Gmail problems are caused by the government?
3. How do they react to their email service being taken down?

Hello,

I currently work in a small city in northern China (south of Beijing). The office is quite large, about 200 + workers. I was speaking with a tech-savy co-worker that is visiting from Guandong. When I asked him how many co-workers are aware that the Chinese government blocks some websites and searches, he answered maybe 1 or 2.

I asked a bunch of them. It turns out he was mostly right. There were a few that knew the government blocked websites like youtube and facebook, but none of them knew to what extent the internet is filtered here. Though they did believe that internet filtering is a good thing. I think it is a bad thing.

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