Google unblocked again - was it a mistake or a test?

The DNS poisoning that was imposed on most Google websites yesterday appears to have been lifted. The blocking was likely reversed some time this morning. Due to the nature of DNS there is a delay before this trickles down to every ISP and every computer so if you still cannot access Google in China it's likely just a question of time. You can also try to flush your DNS cache and it should work again.

Even though the blocking of Google Search may only have lasted for 12 hours or so, it was likely the single one decision by the Great Firewall authorities affecting the most users ever. So what really happened? Here are some theories:

1. Was it a mistake?

The blocking of the worlds number one (and Chinas number two) search engine took place on a Friday night. It's possible that someone simply pressed the wrong button and accidentally DNS poisoned the wrong website. Perhaps they only meant to block mail.google.com. If it was a mistake, that would explain why it was seemingly reversed this morning. In that case, at least one employee of the Golden Shield Project must have lost their job today. However, there's one reason to believe this is not the case. The authorities didn't just block access to google.com or all subdomains that belong to it (such as mail.google.com, play.google.com, maps.google.com etc). They also DNS poisoned google.com.hk and google-analytics.com. This can't be done by accidentally hitting one button - you have to launch three separate actions. So if it wasn't a mistake, what could have happened?

2. Were the authorities testing the public opinion?

We've argued before that the authorites have stayed away from blocking access to GMail only because they are afraid of the reaction if they would cut it off completely. However, they have taken actions to make it slow and unstable. In March, 2011, it seemed like they were going to block GMail but then they backed down. Could it be that this quick decision to reverse the blocking of Google was a similar test of the publics reaction? You can read comments by Sina Weibo users here. Clearly people were unhappy to find their access to Google, GMail etc cut off. Many blamed the ongoing Party Congress. Perhaps the authorities read these reactions and decided that people were too upset?

Interestingly, Sina Weibo did not block searches for Google. Neither have they, as it appears, deleted any messages referring to Google recently. Perhaps this was deliberate, if they wanted to measure the reactions. Perhaps they will now evaluate how strongly people feel about having access to Google, and reach a conclusion of whether to permantently block it in the future.

3. Were the authorities testing the "block Google" button?

Another possibility is that this was a test of a new "block Google" button. The authorities may want to know that, if they so wish, they can easily order the blocking of all Google services in China. If this was indeed such a test, the timing seems convenient (Friday night, when international businesses are closed).

Anyhow, what's the situation now?

Whatever you make of the last 24 hours, it seems we're now back to where we started. That is, Google isn't universally blocked, but many individual Google services are censored, fully or from time to time. In particular, access to GMail is shaky, probably because one or more of it's IP addresses are blocked.

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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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Comments

There could of course be another option: your initial report was wrong.

The initial report was, indeed, 100% correct. When i lost all access to Google HK and Gmail last night, I went straight to Google UK and searched for any lastest info. This site was the only one to supply any news, and furthermore, I was amazed at how quickly such a detailed account of the situation had been provided. I have bookemarked this site; it will be extremely useful to me in my future life in China. Thanks, Greatfire Org, for quickly advising us 'just how it is', in a clear and simple way. :)

@Fons Tuinstra, Please notice that even Google ackonwledges this block, refer to its transparency report. https://www.google.com/transparencyreport/traffic/?r=CN&l=EVERYTHING&csd...

Well, Google Docs is STILL blocked in Ningbo, China, as of November 12. Incredibly annoying as I use it as a teaching tool.

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