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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Thu, Nov 30, 2017

About those 674 apps that Apple censored in China

Apple opened the door on its censorship practices in China - but just a crack.

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

Mon, Dec 12, 2016

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 现在开始测试VPN在中国的速度和稳定性

在中国有一个普遍观念,如果你有一个可以使用的VPN,那么你应该保持沉默。就信息自由而言,这种观念的问题在于获取知识竟成了一种秘密。今天,我们推出一个项目,希望能够摧毁这种模型。

我们最新的网站,翻墙中心,目的在于实时提供那些能够在中国使用的翻墙方案的信息和数据。在2011年以来我们就已经开始收集在中国被屏蔽的网站,现在我们也将增加那些可用的VPN和其他翻墙工具。

我们发布翻墙中心主要有四个目的。

我们的首要目标是助长使用翻墙工具的国人的数量。通过分享我们这些工具的信息和数据,我们希望对更广泛的受众展示那些工具时可以使用的。

我们的第二个目标是通过带来工具性能的透明化来提升中国用户的翻墙体验。我们将会测试工具的速度(流行网站的加载速度)和稳定性(流行网站加载成功的程度)。

我们开发速度测试的目的是要真实反映用户的体验。当用户在网站测速时,浏览器在后台会从10个世界上最流行的网站上下载一些资源文件。根据Alexa排名,这些网站分别是Google, Facebook, YouTube, Baidu, Amazon, Yahoo, Wikipedia, QQ, Twitter and Microsoft Live。速度的结果是简单的计算下载文件文件的大小和下载所需的时间。我们同样也会验证下载的文件是否完整。如果文件的内容是错误的或者在40秒内无法完成下载,我们会标记为失败。这个数据被我们用来生成另一个重要指标-稳定性。

其他的速度测试工具仅仅是通过发送数据到它们自己的服务器来测量上传和下载的速度。这种数据无法反应用户的体验,因为正常的浏览器通常会频繁的发送一系列的请求(而不是上传或下载一个大文件)到许多的服务器,而不止是一个。

我们的第二个指标 - 稳定性 - 是其他的服务通常不会测试的。一个健康的互联网连接应该达到100%的稳定性,除非有人在测试中把网线拔了。但是在中国使用翻墙工具却不是这样。任何时候连接都有可能变得不稳定或十分缓慢。根据请求的大小,最终的地点和代理的方式,一些请求有可能会失败。比较服务的稳定性要比比较速度更加重要。

你可以测试任意的翻墙工具,列表之外的也可以。中国的VPN用户也可以测试他们的工具,测试结果也会添加到数据库中。这些数据都将会对所有人开放。实时的在中国测试是非常重要的,因为VPN随时都可能被封锁或解封。我们欢迎任何的关于测试过程的反馈。有技术能力的用户也可以通过审查我们的javascript代码来获悉我们的测试是如何工作的。

我们郑重的邀请翻墙工具的开发者们向我们提供测试过程的反馈。我们的第三个目标是帮助这些开发人员改进他们的产品,让更多的选择适用于中国的顾客。此外,越多的工具可以工作,就意味着中国当局对翻墙的打击就会越难。

中国的用户都知道,在过去的18个月中当局加紧了对翻墙工具的攻击。而翻墙中心将会吹响反击的号角。反其道而行之,让这不再成为秘密。我们要鼓励人们分享翻墙工具可以工作的信息。

我们的第四个目标就是要为GreatFire.org创造收益。目前GreatFire仍然依靠世界各地的热心人士和组织的捐款。我们希望减少对这些机构的依赖,并探寻GreatFire.org自给自足的道路。用户只需到翻墙中心就能购买任意一款我们目前在测试的付费工具。GreatFire将作为这些工具在中国的经销商,因此VPN供应商会给予我们每个零售的一部分。用户也不必在中国购买这些翻墙服务。

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