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

Date Event References
May 31 Google 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 31 GFW disables new feature by blocking javascript file containing the function and data of blocked keywords. https://en.greatfire.org/https/bit.ly/KhDUnK
June 2 Google changes the URL of the javascript file, enabling the function again https://twitter.com/GreatFireChina/status/208855394280423424*
June 2 - June 18 GFW blocks the new URL again. http://ow.ly/bjBwE*
Before end of June Google 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 6 Partial blocking of Gmail is stepped up. https://en.greatfire.org/https/mail.google.com/mail
Nov 9 All of google.com and google.com.hk are blocked in China. https://en.greatfire.org/blog/2012/nov/googlecom-blocked-china
Nov 10 Google is unblocked again. https://en.greatfire.org/blog/2012/nov/google-unblocked-again-was-it-mistake-or-test
Dec 5 - Dec 8 Google 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 8 Google 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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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?

Thu, Feb 18, 2016

From the desk of Lu Wei: Apple, encryption and China

Lu Wei, Director of the Cyberspace Administration of China, offers some friendly help to FBI Director James Comey.

Thu, Sep 24, 2015

Apple blocked CNNIC CA months after MITM attacks

In March of this year, Google found unauthorized digital certificates for several Google domains. The root certificate authority for these domains was the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). CNNIC was controlled by the Chinese government through the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and is now under the management of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). CNNIC was recognized by all major browsers as a trusted Certificate Authority. If CNNIC signs a fake certificate used in a man-in-the-middle attack, no browser will warn of any unusual activity unless the certificate is pinned.

After Google found these unauthorized certificates, both Google and Firefox revoked its trust in CNNIC a few days later, a development we at GreatFire.org have adovacting for since 2013. Apple and Microsoft on the other hand, did not revoke their trust in CNNIC, nor did they make any announcements regarding the security compromise.

Wed, Sep 23, 2015

Malicious Xcode could spread via download manager Xunlei

What’s at stake?

We reported last week that popular Chinese iOS apps were compromised in an unprecedented malware attack. We discovered that the source of the infection was compromised copies of Xcode hosted on Baidu Pan. Apple has published an article urging developers to download Xcode directly from the Mac App Store, or from the Apple Developer website and validate signatures. We’ve now discovered that even if a developer uses a download link seemingly from Apple, he might still be possible to obtain a compromised copy of Xcode.

Please note that we do not have evidence that such attacks has happened. But it is an easy attack that anyone can implement.

How does it work?

This compromise happened because of Xunlei. Xunlei is the most popular download manager in China. Much of its popularity is due to the fact they can accelerate download speeds by pulling resources from other Xunlei users as well as cached copies on the Xunlei server. All of this, however, is invisible to users. Users can simply enter a regular http download address into Xunlei  download manager and the download will start. Chinese developers were using direct download addresses such as http://adcdownload.apple.com/Developer_Tools/Xcode_7/Xcode_7.dmg to download Xcode.

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