Did the Chinese censors stop worrying about Google?

We continuosly monitor more than 5000 keywords on Google, of which almost 2000 are currently blocked in China. Usually this number changes with current events. For example, when http://www.bloomberg.com was blocked in June, the keyword google: bloomberg was blocked as well. In March, when there were rumors of a coup, google: 政变 was blocked. And as the Bo Xilai scandal unfolded, you could not search for google: Heywood. However, in the whole month of September, we didn't detect one single new keyword being blocked on Google. One keyword was unblocked (google: 亡国).

It's not as if the authorities didn't have anything to censor - the conflict with Japan as well as the upcoming leadership transition provide plenty of material. And indeed, they are censoring - on Sina Weibo and probably other local websites, but apparently not on Google.

Google vs Sina Weibo

Three seemingly sensitive keywords that were blocked on Sina Weibo during September are:

  1. weibo: 克强 (as in 李克强, Li Keqiang, the upcoming premier of China)
  2. weibo: 自焚 (self-immolation)
  3. weibo: 张培莉 (Zhang Peili, wife of Wen Jiabao, the current premier of China)

However, none of these keywords have been blocked on Google:

  1. google: 克强
  2. google: 自焚
  3. google: 张培莉

At the same time, four sensitive keywords that were unblocked on Sina Weibo in September are:

  1. weibo: 薄熙来 (Bo Xilai, the previous mayor of Chongqing and Politburo member who was recently ousted from the Communist Party of China)
  2. weibo: 抗议 (protest)
  3. weibo: 大使馆 (embassy)
  4. weibo: 日领馆 (Japanese Consulate)

Again, on Google, none of the keywords have changed - the first one has stayed blocked, and the other three were never blocked in the first place:

  1. google: 薄熙来
  2. google: 抗议
  3. google: 大使馆
  4. google: 日领馆

Is it because of Googles censorship transparency feature?

In May this year, Google introduced a new feature which warns users that the keyword they are searching for may be censored. It makes the censorship more obvious, and more difficult to confuse with technical errors. The authorities initially tried to block the new censorship warning, but Google quickly improved their approach to make it more difficult to interrupt. Since then, the censors seem to have left Google alone.

Before May, 2012After

Is it because of a falling market share?

Google's share of the online search market in China at the end of 2011 was 16.7% according to MarketWatch. Google.com.hk is ranked 5th and Google.com 10th among the top sites in China, according to Alexa. Perhaps the authorities are deprioritizing Google since only a minority of users ever use it.

Is it because search is harmless compared to microblogs?

Another possible reason is that the authorities simply worry less about access to information (through search) than the creation of information (through microblogs). A recent study by Harvard supports this, claiming that

Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future.

In this context, search seems to pose much less of a threat than microblogs. So what about Baidu, by far the most widely used search engine in China? Let's have a look at the keywords we used for our Google vs Sina Weibo comparison above:

Indeed, there were no changes on Baidu concerning any of these keywords either (though we don't have data prior to September for the third and fourth of them so we can't be sure). Overall though, it does seem to suggest that there's much less movement in terms of censorship on search engines now than on microblogs such as Sina Weibo.

By the way, Picasa Web, Groups and Drive

https://picasaweb.google.com was blocked in September. Notice the S in https:// - the non-encrypted version http://picasaweb.google.com was blocked before as well. Amazingly, https://www.google.com.hk is still not blocked, allowing those Chinese users who know about it to search for any of the thousands of keywords that would otherwise be blocked.

In other good news, both https://groups.google.com and https://drive.google.com were unblocked in September and seem to work rather well in China as this is written.

Google Plus and YouTube next?

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Tue, May 23, 2017

Is China establishing cyber sovereignty in the United States?

Last week Twitter came under attack from a DDoS attack orchestrated by the Chinese authorities. While such attacks are not uncommon for websites like Twitter, this one proved unusual. While the Chinese authorities use the Great Firewall to block harmful content from reaching its citizens, it now uses DDoS attacks to take down content that appears on websites beyond its borders. For the Chinese authorities, it is not simply good enough to “protect” the interests of Chinese citizens at home - in their view of cyber sovereignty, any content that might harm China’s interests must be removed, regardless of where the website is located.

And so last week the Chinese authorities determined that Twitter was the target. In particular, the authorities targeted the Twitter account for Guo Wengui (https://twitter.com/KwokMiles), the rebel billionaire who is slowly leaking information about corrupt Chinese government officials via his Twitter account and through his YouTube videos. Guo appeared to ramp up his whistle-blowing efforts last week and the Chinese authorities, in turn, ramped up theirs.

via https://twitter.com/KwokMiles/status/863689935798374401

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China is the obstacle to Google’s plan to end internet censorship

It’s been three years since Eric Schmidt proclaimed that Google would chart a course to ending online censorship within ten years. Now is a great time to check on Google’s progress, reassess the landscape, benchmark Google’s efforts against others who share the same goal, postulate on the China strategy and offer suggestions on how they might effectively move forward.

flowers on google china plaque

Flowers left outside Google China’s headquarters after its announcement it might leave the country in 2010. Photo: Wikicommons.

What has Google accomplished since November 2013?

The first thing they have accomplished is an entire rebranding of both Google (now Alphabet) and Google Ideas (now Jigsaw). Throughout this blog post, reference is made to both new and old company names.

Google has started to develop two main tools which they believe can help in the fight against censorship. Jigsaw’s DDoS protection service, Project Shield, is effectively preventing censorship-inspired DDoS attacks and recently helped to repel an attack on Brian Krebs’ blog. The service is similar to other anti-DDoS services developed by internet freedom champions and for-profit services like Cloudflare.

Thu, Nov 24, 2016

Facebook: Please, not like this

Facebook is considering launching a censorship tool that would enable the world’s biggest social network to “enter” the China market. Sadly, nobody will be surprised by anything that Mark Zuckerberg decides to do in order to enter the China market. With such low expectations, Facebook is poised to usurp Apple as China’s favorite foreign intelligence gathering partner. If the company launches in China using this strategy they will also successfully erase any bargaining power that other media organizations may hold with the Chinese authorities.

Tue, Jul 05, 2016

GreatFire.org now testing VPN speed and stability in China

There is a commonly held belief in China that if you have a VPN that works then you should keep quiet about it. In terms of freedom of access to information, the problem with this approach is that access to knowledge suddenly is a secret. Today we are launching a project that we hope will destroy that model.

Our newest website, Circumvention Central (CC), aims to provide real-time information and data about circumvention solutions that work in China. Since 2011, we have been collecting data about blocked websites in China and now we will add data about the effectiveness of VPNs and other circumvention tools.

We are launching CC with four main objectives in mind.

Our first objective is to help to grow the number of Chinese who circumvent censorship restrictions in China. By sharing our information and data about these tools, we hope to show a wider audience which circumvention tools are working.

Our second objective is to improve the circumvention experience for users in China by bringing transparency to tool performance. We will measure these tools on speed (how quickly popular websites are loaded) and on stability (the extent to which popular websites load successfully).

Sat, May 07, 2016

The New York Times vs. The Chinese Authorities

Could the New York Times be setting the best path forward for news organizations in China?
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