Google Launches Anti-Censorship Tool

The retooled search site informs Chinese users when keywords will yield blocked results.

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google-retool-305.jpg A screenshot of Google's Hong Kong-based search website displaying a notification about a sensitive search term.

Google has launched a new feature for its Chinese language site which informs mainland users when they enter search keywords that are likely to be blocked by censors and recommends using alternative terms, following a government crackdown on information about a major political scandal.

The move was announced Thursday on a blog post by senior Google vice president Alan Eustace as a site improvement, but did not address Beijing’s use of censorship to police the Internet in China.

Google left China in 2010 after a showdown with the government over Internet controls and currently redirects Chinese language users from the mainland to a search site run from its Hong Kong-based servers.

But Eustace said that mainland users accessing the Hong Kong site experience connection breaks when they search for certain terms.

“Over the past couple years, we’ve had a lot of feedback that Google Search from mainland China can be inconsistent and unreliable,” Eustace wrote in the blog entry.

“It depends on the search query and browser, but users are regularly getting error messages like ‘This webpage is not available’ or ‘The connection was reset.’ And when that happens, people typically cannot use Google again for a minute or more.”

Google said the problem also extends to users accessing the site via web browsers on their mobile phones, including devices operating on the company’s Android operating system.

He said that Google had examined its own systems and found no problems, but “noticed that these interruptions are closely correlated with searches for a particular subset of queries.”

“So starting today we’ll notify users in mainland China when they enter a keyword that may cause connection issues. By prompting people to revise their queries, we hope to reduce these disruptions and improve our user experience from mainland China,” Eustace wrote.

Users who wish to continue with their original search keywords may do so.

‘Sensitive’ terms

Eustace said the company had reviewed the 350,000 most popular search queries in China in an effort to find "disruptive queries."

Google listed the Chinese character “jiang,” which means river, as an example of a term that would likely lead to a broken connection, but neglected to mention that it is also the surname of former president Jiang Zemin, which could be the reason for blocked results.

A notification that pops up when entering such a character during a search query recommends that the user remove the offending term.

But the character “jiang” and others like it are used in many different words, including the names of places and businesses, and users who remove the term from their search will be unable to access related sites.

For users who do not want to remove the offending search term, Google suggested a workaround in which one can search using the “pinyin,” or Romanized version, of a Chinese word. It said writing in pinyin would not cause a user’s connection to break and would produce normal search results.

Web controls

Chinese web administrators do not publish a list of banned keywords, and such searches generally lead to generic error messages. Authorities are likely to be unhappy about Google pointing out the sensitive terms.

And while Google shut down the majority of its mainland operations in 2010, it does maintain a network of advertising sales offices in China, which could be targeted if Beijing decides to punish the company.

In the first quarter of 2012, Google held just over 16 percent of the search market in China—second behind domestic brand Baidu Inc. with a more than 78 percent share.

The company is pushing its Android mobile phone operating system to Chinese manufacturers and purchased a wireless device maker last month in a deal that Beijing approved on condition that the platform remain available to Chinese companies and others at no cost for five years.

China has the world’s largest population of Internet users at 513 million as of last December, but often blocks content it deems politically sensitive.

The most recent example of an Internet crackdown follows significant online traffic related to a political crisis sparked by the ouster of former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai.

The secrecy surrounding Bo's scandal has set China's Internet alight with political rumors, which the authorities have moved swiftly to quell through controls on the country's wildly popular Twitter-like services, known as "weibo."

Bo’s name is currently a blocked term, as are Chongqing and even the Yangtze River.

Reported by Joshua Lipes.


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