Google Web sites including its English search engine became inaccessible in China late Wednesday, following the country’s criticism of Google last week for serving up pornographic search results.
China appeared to block sites including Google.com, Gmail and Google Docs around 9:30 p.m. local time, when complaints about the sites not loading began appearing on Twitter. Attempts to visit the sites timed out or returned a “connection interrupted” message.
A Chinese government-backed Internet watchdog criticized Google last week for allowing links to pornographic Web sites to appear in its results. A news program broadcast by state-owned CCTV drew widespread attention to the issue when it showed google.cn, the company’s Chinese-language search engine, returning the links based on English searches.
Google this week said it had developed an automated system to remove pornographic results from searches on google.cn. But links to porn still appeared in searches using google.com in China earlier on Wednesday. Google.cn could still be loaded in China on Wednesday night.
Some Twitter users reported spotty access to Gmail and google.com returning around 11 p.m. local time, but others still said the sites would not load. Google.com appeared to be blocked through interference with the DNS (Domain Name System). The DNS translates alphabetic URLs such as google.com into a corresponding IP (Internet Protocol) address so the Web site’s server can be reached. Google.com could be viewed by directly visiting its IP address.
Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Foreign and domestic PC makers are still required to ship the filter program with all PCs sold in China beginning July 1, the state-run China Daily said, citing an unnamed source in the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).
China first issued the mandate last month and has said the software is meant to protect children from pornographic and other “harmful” content online. But the program, called Green Dam Youth Escort, also blocks political content including Web sites that mention Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned as a cult in China. China has recently blocked social networking sites on the lead up to the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.
The proposed implementation of the software would have “an influence that extends far beyond helping protect children from age appropriate material,” according to the OpenNet Initiative, a collaborative of four leading academic institutions that include: the Citizen Lab at the Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto; Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University; the Advanced Network Research Group at the Cambridge Security Programme, University of Cambridge; and the Oxford Internet Institute, Oxford University.
“Governments around the world are increasingly using new methods to shape and control the online media environment,” according to Ronald Deibert Director, The Citizen Lab, Munk Centre for International Studies, University of Toronto and one of ONI’s principal investigators.
Deibert said ONI’s aim is to investigate, expose and analyze Internet filtering and surveillance practices in a credible and non-partisan fashion.
Not only does Gren Dam block access to a wide range of web sites based on keywords and image processing, including porn, gaming, gay content, religious sites and political themes, it actively monitors individual computer behavior, according to a recently released report by ONI.
As such, a wide range of programs including word processing and email can be suddenly terminated if content algorithm detects inappropriate speech.
“The program installs components deep into the kernel of the computer operating system in order to enable this application layer monitoring. The operation of the software is highly unpredictable and disrupts computer activity far beyond the blocking of websites,” the report said.
With minor tweaks, the report said, the software can be used to monitor personal communcations and Internet browsing behaviour. The auto-update feature of a software can also be used to change the scope and targetting of the filtering without notifying the user, the report added.
Industry groups have called on China to reconsider requiring distribution of the software.
China’s demands could also escalate into a serious trade dispute if the government actually bars foreign PC makers from selling computers without the software, said Simon Ye, a Gartner analyst. State media last week cited an unnamed official saying foreign PC makers like Dell might not be able to meet the deadline.
Some kind of compromise is much more likely before the deadline, said Ye. Barring sales by a company like Dell would disrupt China’s PC market and could trigger protectionist responses by the U.S., he said. Hewlett-Packard and Dell were the second- and third-largest PC vendors in China in the final quarter last year, claiming over one-fifth of PC shipments in the country, according to IDC statistics.
Dell is still reviewing the government mandate, a company spokeswoman said, declining to comment further.
Resistance to China’s mandate has grown in the weeks since it became public. Representatives from multiple U.S. government offices met with Chinese officials last Friday to express concerns about the requirement to ship the software, said Susan Stevenson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. Embassy officials representing the State Department, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative and the Commerce Department met with officials at China’s MIIT and commerce ministry, she said.
The U.S. has asked China for a dialogue about the potential impact of the mandate on trade, effects on the free flow of information and “serious technical issues” raised by use of the software, Stevenson said.
Chinese Internet users have also mounted resistance to the mandate. Ai Weiwei, a well-known artist and dissident, was using Twitter messages on Tuesday to call for an Internet boycott the day of the government deadline. Ai urged Internet users not to go online on July 1 for work, email, news or other purposes.
“Do not give any explanation of your actions,” Ai wrote in his Twitter feed. “Make July 1 a day of commemoration for the Internet.”
Calls to China’s MIIT went unanswered Tuesday morning.