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:
|Other (Chinese) provider||2||6%|
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.