A Chinese netizen in the southern province of Guangdong has sued his Internet service provider (ISP) for blocking access to Google, in a rare move which has highlighted the country's censorship practices, even in official media.
The case against the country's number-two telecom giant China Unicom was heard by a district court in the city of Shenzhen on Thursday, the People's Daily online edition reported.
The plaintiff, Wang Long, told a related paper, the Global Times, that he believes the ISP is in breach of its contract with him as a customer.
"There is a contractual relationship," Wang was quoted as saying. "They should offer me telecom services, yet they still failed to provide access. They should be held responsible for this failure."
Chinese netizens have rallied behind Wang on social media for highlighting the complex system of filters, keyword blocks and manual censorship known collectively as the "Great Firewall," in such a public manner.
Access to Google's search services have been blocked to many users in China since June, although the company has been offering a service to Chinese-language users from servers based in Hong Kong since it partially withdrew from mainland China in 2010.
"After four years, however, Chinese Internet users lost access to the alternative google.com.hk in June," the People's Daily reported on Friday.
Wang said via his Twitter-like Weibo account that China Unicom "admitted the failure to provide access in court."
He said the company's lawyer hesitated to answer when the judge asked whether Google's websites can normally be accessed using its services.
Eventually, the lawyer said he was "unsure whether he could answer," sparking gales of laughter from the public gallery, according to Wang's account.
Whereupon the judge ordered the clerk to record that the websites were not accessible, but the lack of access had nothing to do with China Unicom.
A final judgement is expected by the end of the month, the People's Daily said.
Wang said part of the problem with the case lay with the fact that it was hard for the court to establish who is responsible for the blocking of Google's services to Chinese users.
"This is a pretty straightforward civil case, based on the fact that I am paying someone money for a service," Wang told RFA on Friday. "If there is a problem with that, then ... who has responsibility?"
"The fact that Google withdrew from China, and the fact that we aren't able to visit the search page are two separate issues," Wang said.
He called on Google to produce proof that it hadn't blocked visitors to its Hong Kong-based search page with IP addresses originating in mainland China.
Wang said he has since had a call from China's state security police.
"The state security police said they were going to visit me at 2:00 p.m., but I said I wasn't available, and they haven't been in touch since," he said.
"Friends of mine have been visited by them after giving interviews to sensitive media organizations like Radio Free Asia," Wang said.
"It's not secure or convenient for me to speak by phone any more," he added. "I'm sure you understand."
A news post on Sina Weibo linked to the case had been viewed some 850,000 times on Friday, with many netizens leaving supportive comments.
"The original poster (OP) is doing what many of us don't dare to do," wrote user @huangdidecaibao, while @capricornyu added: "Whether he wins or not, at least someone is speaking out."
@Leo_Young added, in a reference to the Fang Binxing, the "Father of the Great Firewall": "Is it America's Google shutting down our technological access ... or is it principal Fang and his cronies who are the running dogs for an internal form of imperialism?"
Meanwhile, @jieyeyetang commented: "It's at least some kind of progress that the court took the case and is going through the motions."
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.
The Great Firewall already ensures that popular foreign websites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are hard to access for the majority of China's 632 million Internet users.
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.