Google quietly undoes censorship notification feature for Chinese users

On January 4, 2013, greatfire.org (a Herdict partner) broke the news that in early December 2012, Google quietly removed a feature that informed Chinese search users about which of their search terms may be subject to government censorship. Google implemented the feature in May 2012, and provided a notice to users when their search query contained sensitive terms that would likely cause government controls to temporarily sever their connection to Google. Users alerted to blocked terms could try to bypass government controls by modifying the terms of their search queries.

Though Google acknowledged its removal of the feature after GreatFire’s post, it has declined to comment any further. An anonymous Chinese source quoted in The Guardian said that the Chinese government’s efforts to disable the notification feature had rendered it “counterproductive” for Google to continue supporting the feature.

GreatFire speculates that Google removed the feature in order to ensure that Google services would be available in the large and potentially lucrative Chinese market. In the weeks leading up to the feature’s removal, the Chinese government became more aggressive in blocking Google’s services, culminating in a complete block for 24 hours on November 9.  Although service was restored, heightened intermittent blocking continued thereafter. At the time, the crackdown was attributed to the ongoing 18th Party Congress. Whatever the primary motivation for filtering, it was likely a significant disruption for Google and their Chinese users. GreatFire argues that Google may have removed its censorship-alert feature in order to placate the Chinese government and improve its standing in the Chinese market.

Wired suggests that removing the censorship feature is an attempt on Google’s part to improve user experience: “Essentially, no one is going to stick with your service if it keeps getting them booted off the internet or bothering them with pop-ups telling them things they already know.” This explanation, however, is not entirely sensible. First, one of Google’s motivations for the feature was to help its users avoid getting kicked off the Internet by alerting them about risky search terms before they became an issue.  Second, Chinese censors are ultimately concerned with restricting access to content and the search results that link to that content.  Even with the censorship-alert feature inactive, Chinese censors are just as invested in blocking access to search results, meaning that Google could prevent its users from getting “booted off” only if it self-censored its search results.

By no longer warning users about which search terms may disrupt connectivity, some people may find Google in China to be a more frustrating experience.  However, that may be a worthwhile tradeoff for Google if removing the alert means that Google services will be available more generally for Chinese users.

In a review of Herdict reports from China in the month periods before the Google outage, the month following the outage, and the month since Google remove the feature, we could not identify a clear trend in general Google accessibility in China.  Since December 8, the date by which the censorship-alert feature had been removed, Herdict has not received a significant number of inaccessible reports for google.com from China. However, services such as video.google.comencrypted.google.comyoutube.com, and news.google.com have been reported as entirely or almost entirely inaccessible. We encourage Chinese users to continue submitting reports to Herdict regarding the accessibility of Google services.

About the Author: Marianna Mao

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