Google Bows Down To Chinese Government On Censorship

Sometime between December 5 and December 8 last year, Google made a surprising decision that hasn’t yet been reported. They decided to remove a feature which had previously informed users from China of censored keywords (screenshot below). At the same time, they deleted the help article which explained how to use the feature. This indicates a new development in the relationship between the Chinese government and Google. Since Google moved its search engine to Hong Kong in 2010, censorship of its services such as YouTube, Google Plus and thousands of keywords on Google Search has been done by the Great Firewall, out of control of Google. This latest move was fully controlled by Google and can as such only be described as self-censorship.

Google has been depicted as a model company that stands up to the Chinese government and upholds its famous motto “Don’t be evil”. This impression reached a climax in May this year when Google introduced a new warning message aimed at users in China. Typing one of the many keywords blocked by the Great Firewall, this message would inform the user that continuing the search would probably break the user's connection. It was a bold step towards exposing the censorship that the authorities desperately try to hide. At the time, Foreign Policy asked whether in this “second clash between the Internet search giant and the Chinese government, will freedom of speech win?”.

Within 24 hours of Google’s new feature, The Great Firewall had struck back by blocking the javascript file containing the function and blocked keywords data (see Timeline Of Events below for more). Google in turn reacted by changing the URL of this file, which again was blocked. The cat and mouse game ended before the end of the month when Google geniously embedded the whole function in the HTML of its start page. This made it technically impossible to block the new function without blocking Google altogether.
 
This was a remarkable victory against censorship. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. According to our test data, Google switched off the embedded function for Chinese users sometime between December 5 and December 8. Why did they pull the switch?
 
One theory is that embedding the China-specific function on Google’s front page makes the system more difficult to maintain. The more complex a system is, the harder it is to improve. On the other hand, this function was clearly valuable. And with all the brilliant minds Google has at its disposal, they could surely find a technical solution. Though Google’s market share in China is only around 5%, that still translates to more than 25 million Internet users.
 
What really renders this theory void is that Google also deleted the help article about this function. While disabling a feature could potentially be a result of technical streamlining, deleting a help article and so pretending that the feature never existed makes no sense. The article used to be available at http://www.google.com/support/websearch/bin/answer.py?answer=2477913 but trying to view it now renders a “Page not available” message. Our test data shows that the article was still available on December 5 and that it had been removed by December 8. This is the same time that the function itself was disabled. Here’s a screenshot of the original help article:

What could be the reason for Google to switch off their smart anti-censorship function and at the same time delete the help article about the same function? The developers who painstakingly constructed it only half a year ago must have screamed in protest. Since the removal of the help article could only be done willingly by Google, the only explanation we see is that Google struck a deal with the Chinese government, giving in to considerable pressure to self-censor.

How did the Chinese government force such a candid company to do its bidding? Perhaps the complete blocking of Google Search on Nov 9 was part of it. The block was lifted after less than 24 hours making the move look very peculiar. At the time we speculated that perhaps it was a test of a “block-all-of-Google” button, but this new theory of it being part of pressuring Google looks at least as likely. It may have been an instance of the government showing off its power to Google and using it as a leverage in their negotiations. 

Also in November, the throttling and partial blocking of Google’s Mail service was stepped up considerably. In the end, Google may have decided that providing a restricted version of Google Search and a slow but usable Gmail to Chinese users is much better than being completely cut off.

This is a grave setback in the fight against censorship and Google has been caught on the wrong side. It suggests that Google’s reputation as a fighter of censorship may not be fully earned. However, it’s not obvious that any other company is much better (see these stories critical of Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo). Gmail may still be the best email service for Chinese dissidents because it supports https, two-step authentication, and warns against suspicious activity and state-sponsored attacks. We appreciate that Google tries to stand up to the government, even though it seems to have been forced to bow down.

Looking forward, a weakened Google suggests that it won’t continue to push the boundaries of censorship in China. For example, it is unlikely to start redirecting all Chinese users to its HTTPS version of Google Search, even though that would enable searching of all blocked keywords in one strike.

We hope that Google will offer us and its millions of Chinese users an explanation of what really happened. However, given what Google says on the China section of its Transparency Report website, this may be unlikely:

Chinese officials consider censorship demands to be state secrets, so we cannot disclose any information about content removal requests.

Update: According to the Guardian, "A Google spokesman confirmed it removed the notification features in December, but declined to comment further due to the sensitivity of the situation in China." and “A source in China said Google decided it was "counterproductive" to continue the technical dispute, despite several attempts to get around it.”

Timeline Of Events

DateEventReferences
May 31Google introduces new feature informing Mainland China users of blocked keywords. Google publishes blog posts, help article and Youtube videos about it.https://en.greatfire.org/blog/2012/jun/greatfire-may-google-and-sina-adapt-great-firewall-strikes-back

http://insidesearch.blogspot.com/2012/05/better-search-in-mainland-china.html
May 31GFW disables new feature by blocking javascript file containing the function and data of blocked keywords.https://en.greatfire.org/https/bit.ly/KhDUnK
June 2Google changes the URL of the javascript file, enabling the function againhttps://twitter.com/GreatFireChina/status/208855394280423424*
June 2 - June 18GFW blocks the new URL again.http://ow.ly/bjBwE*
Before end of JuneGoogle embeds the new anti-censorship function on its front page, making it near-impossible to block.https://en.greatfire.org/blog/2012/jul/greatfire-june-bloomberg-blocked-well-hundreds-additional-keywords-weibo
Nov 6Partial blocking of Gmail is stepped up.https://en.greatfire.org/https/mail.google.com/mail
Nov 9All of google.com and google.com.hk are blocked in China.https://en.greatfire.org/blog/2012/nov/googlecom-blocked-china
Nov 10Google is unblocked again.https://en.greatfire.org/blog/2012/nov/google-unblocked-again-was-it-mistake-or-test
Dec 5 - Dec 8Google stops embedding the anti-censorship function on its front page.From our database. Last record including
embedded function was on Dec 5. First record without it was on Dec 8.
Dec 5 - Dec 8Google deletes the help article.Dec 5 (article available).
Dec 8 (article deleted). 

*Because the exact URL is too long, our test system only tests the truncated version of the exact URL. This explains the 404 when accessing from U.S, but the block in China is still effective for this truncated version of URL.

Links

  1. The external Javascript file containing an encoded list of blocked keywords (which was later embedded on the front page for Chinese users): http://www.google.com/xjs/_/js/s/s,st,anim,bbd,c,sb_cn,hv,wta,cr,cdos,sk....
  2. Google official blog posts about the anti-censorship feature:
    1. http://insidesearch.blogspot.com/2012/05/better-search-in-mainland-china... (English)
    2. http://services.google.com/fh/files/blogs/google_chinasearchchinese.pdf (Chinese)
  3. YouTube videos about observations in mainland China, by Google:
    1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2GHyVPoVms (English)
    2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFAHKav2JZM (Chinese)

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Mon, Jan 26, 2015

An Open Letter to Lu Wei and the Cyberspace Administration of China

January 26, 2015

Beijing, China

 

Mr. Lu Wei

Director of the Cyberspace Administration of the People’s Republic of China 中央网络安全和信息化领导小组办公室主任

Director of the State Internet Information Office 国家互联网信息办公室主任

Deputy Director of the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party 中共中央宣传部副部长

Cyberspace Administration of China,

Floor 1, Building 1,

Software Park, Chinese Academy of Sciences,

4 South 4th Street, Zhongguancun,

Beijing, China, 100190

 

Dear Mr. Lu,

On January 22, 2015, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which is under your direct control, wrote a response to a story we published about an MITM attack on Microsoft. In the post, your colleague, Jiang Jun, labelled our accusations as "groundless" and  "unsupported speculation, a pure slanderous act by overseas anti-China forces".

We at GreatFire.org take great offense to these comments and we will refute them in this letter.

Mon, Jan 19, 2015

Outlook grim - Chinese authorities attack Microsoft

On January 17, we received reports that Microsoft’s email system, Outlook (which was merged with Hotmail in 2013), was subjected to a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack in China.

The following screenshot shows what happens when a Chinese user accesses Outlook via an email client (in this case, Ice-dove):

We have tested Outlook to verify the attack and have produced the same results. IMAP and SMTP for Outlook were under a MITM attack. Do note however that the web interfaces (https://outlook.com and https://login.live.com/ ) were not affected. The attack lasted for about a day and has now ceased.

This form of attack is especially devious because the warning messages users receive from their email clients are much less noticeable than the warning messages delivered to modern browsers (see screenshot at the end of this post for comparison).

(Sample error message from default iPhone mail client)

Fri, Jan 09, 2015

GFW upgrade fail - visitors to blocked sites redirected to porn

In the past, the Chinese authorities’ DNS poisoning system would direct Chinese internet users who were trying to access Facebook, Twitter and other blocked websites (without the use of a circumvention tool) to a set of fake IP addresses that are blocked in China or are non-existent. After waiting for some time, Chinese internet users would receive a timeout message if they were trying to access a blocked site.

However, with the new DNS poisoning system, in addition to those IP addresses used before, the Chinese authorities are using real IP addresses that actually host websites and are accessible in China. For example, https://support.dnspod.cn/Tools/tools/ shows that if a user tries to access Facebook from China, they might instead land on a random web page, e.g. http://178.62.75.99

Below is a screenshot by a Chinese user when he was trying to access our GreatFire.org website which was blocked in China. He was redirected to a goverment site in Korea. In essense, GFW is sending Chinese users to DDOS the Korea government's website.

One Chinese Internet user reported to us that when he tried to access Facebook in China, he was sent to a Russian website, unrelated to Facebook. Another user tweeted that he was redirected to an German adult site when he tried to access a website for a VPN.

某墙你这什么意思,DNS 污染返回给我一个德国工口站的 IP,满屏很黄很暴力弹弹弹(

— nil (@xierch) January 4, 2015

Wed, Dec 31, 2014

CNNIC leadership change coincides with blocking of Gmail

On December 26, 2014, in an announcement posted on their website, a new chairperson for CNNIC was directly appointed by the Cyberspace Administration of China. The announcement of this appointment coincided with the complete blocking of Gmail.

Cyberspace Administration of China (中央网信办) is chaired by Lu Wei, “China’s web doorkeeper”. Lu Wei is also the vice chair of the Central Propaganda Department, according to his official resume.

chair.png

This office is directly responsible for the blocking of Gmail and other websites including Facebook, Twitter and Google.

CNNIC is China’s certification authority and operates the country’s domain name registry. 

What are certificates used for?

Certificates are used primarily to verify the identity of a person or device, authenticate a service, or encrypt files. 

What is a certification authority (CA)?  

Tue, Dec 30, 2014

Gmail completely blocked in China

All Google products in China have been severely disrupted since June of this year and Chinese users have not been able to access Gmail via its web interface since the summer. However, email protocols such as IMAP, SMTP and POP3 had been accessible but are not anymore. These protocols are used in the default email app on iPhone, Microsoft Outlook on PC and many more email clients.

On December 26, GFW started to block large numbers of IP addresses used by Gmail. These IP addresses are used by IMAP/SMTP/POP3. Chinese users now have no way of accessing Gmail behind the GFW. Before, they could still send or receive emails via email clients even though Gmail's web interface was not accessible. 

Google's own traffic chart shows a sharp decline of Chinese traffic to Gmail. 

Below is a ping request to the Gmail SMTP server, which is completely inaccessible in China.

 

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