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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Sat, Apr 04, 2015

CNNIC censors news about their own statement

On April 1, 2015 Google announced that they will no longer recognize the CNNIC Root and EV (extensive validation) certificate authorities (CAs).

On April 2, 2015 Mozilla concluded that CNNIC’s behaviour in issuing an unconstrained intermediate certificate to another company was ‘egregious practice’ and that Mozilla products would no longer trust any certificate issued by CNNIC’s roots. Mozilla also published a more detailed report about their actions.

After unauthorized digital certificates for several Google domains were exposed by Google and Mozilla on March 23, 2015, CNNIC censored any mention of these posts. CNNIC is not only a certificate authority, they are also China’s online censorship apparatus. CNNIC was, is and will continue to practice internet censorship.

 

News about the April 1 and 2 annoucements has again been censored on social media and also on traditional media in China.

Below is a screenshot of Weibo posts about these announcements.

 

Tue, Mar 31, 2015

Chinese authorities compromise millions in cyberattacks

The Great Firewall has switched from being a passive, inbound filter to being an active and aggressive outbound one. This is a frightening development and the implications of this action extend beyond control of information on the internet. In one quick movement, the authorities have shifted from enforcing strict censorship in China to enforcing Chinese censorship on internet users worldwide.

Fri, Mar 27, 2015

CNNIC censored Google and Mozilla’s posts about CNNIC CA

This week, Google found unauthorized digital certificates for several Google domains, the root CA of which is CNNIC. Google and Mozilla both publicly disclosed this security incident and published blog posts(Google, Mozilla). However, Chinese translations of Google’s and Mozilla's blog posts were censored on the Chinese Internet.

  • William Long is a prominent Chinese blogger on IT and tech. He translated Google’s security post without adding any personal opinions. The Chinese blogpost ranked #1 when searching CNNIC MITM in Chinese on Google and Baidu. He tweeted that he received a phone call from propaganda department demanding the post to be removed immediately. The post http://www.williamlong.info/archives/4183.html was deleted. Google cache is still available.

Wed, Mar 25, 2015

Evidence shows CNNIC and CAC behind MITM attacks

Since 2013, we have repeatedly called on major software vendors to revoke CNNIC-issued certificates. Most notably, we raised this issue when we reported on the Cyberspace Administration of China’s (CAC) man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks on Google, Microsoft’s Outlook, Apple, Yahoo and Github. Mainstream media have reported about these security vulnerabilities before and on March 24, Ars Technica reported on Google’s announcement that they have definitive evidence that CNNIC (China Internet Network Information Center) was behind a new MITM attack on Google.

From our October, 2014 blog post:

Thu, Mar 19, 2015

We are under attack

We are under attack and we need help.

Likely in response to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), we’ve experienced our first ever distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack. This tactic is used to bring down web pages by flooding them with lots of requests - at the time of writing they number 2.6 billion requests per hour. Websites are not equipped to handle that kind of volume so they usually “break” and go offline.

This kind of attack is aggressive and is an exhibition of censorship by brute force. Attackers resort to tactics like this when they are left with no other options.

We are not equipped to handle a DDoS attack of this magnitude and we need help. Some background:

  • The attack started on March 17 and we are receiving up to 2.6 billion requests per hour which is about 2500 times more than normal levels.

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