In May, Google users in China who searched politically sensitive terms discovered a new feature when they used the search engine: a pop-up notice informing them why their search yields no results, and that the filtering is out of Google’s control. At the time, freedom of expression advocates heralded the move as an effort by Google to make government censorship of searches transparent.
Now, however, Google has cancelled that feature. From the Wall Street Journal blog:
A Google spokesman confirmed that the company has removed the warning function, but declined to comment on why it decided to do so. The U.S. company has faced a series of challenges in China since 2010, when it stopped adhering to China’s requirement that it self-censor search results. In November, Google’s Web services in China experienced brief but widespread interruptions.
When Google last year started tipping off users about risky search keywords, the move was viewed by some analysts as a potential challenge to Beijing’s efforts to police the Internet. When a user typed a word containing a potentially problematic Chinese character, a drop-down message would appear, saying that searching with that character “may temporarily break your connection to Google,” an interruption “outside Google’s control.” Google’s May 31 official blog post said: “We’ve had a lot of feedback that Google Search from mainland China can be inconsistent and unreliable…we’ve noticed that these interruptions are closely correlated with searches for a particular subset of queries.”
While Google has not officially explained the reason for the change, some technologists believe the company has given up the fight against Chinese government censorship. The Telegraph’s tech blogger Mic Wright writes:
From the moment Google introduced the feature, the Chinese internet censors fought back. But the ingenuity of Google’s engineers got round each block until they finally embedded the entire function in HTML on Google’s start page. That meant to block the notifications, China would have to block Google altogether. Inevitably, the search engine did end up blocked in its entirety more than once before the feature been activated. Gmail was also subject to blocks and a noticeable slowdown in performance. In the stand-off, Google blinked first. At a time when the Chinese government is strengthening its internet censorship measures, the firm has effectively admitted it just can’t beat them and is no longer willing to try.
Meanwhile, Yahoo, which has taken fire from free speech activists for its role in providing information to the Chinese government which helped convict activist Shi Tao in 2005, now offers a secure connection for its email users. From CSO:
Yahoo Web mail users can activate SSL in only a couple of clicks. Within the service, they only need to go to options and select “Make your Yahoo Mail more secure with SSL.”
Google rolled out SSL for Gmail in 2010, after it accused China-based hackers of launching highly sophisticated attacks to eavesdrop on human rights activists.
Indeed, in its letter to Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Mayer, the EFF said HTTPS communications was needed to protect dissidents. “As individuals who engage with at-risk communities targeted for surveillance and censorship, we see on a daily basis how this negligence (not providing secure connections) endangers human rights activists who fight in some of the most repressive environments to protect the basic freedoms that we take for granted,” the letter said.