Google and the Great Firewall: An Interesting New Twist

In a post that went up a few minutes ago on its official "Inside Search" blog, Google offers some fascinating tips on "improving our user experience" for people inside mainland China. As a background reminder: after its showdown with the Chinese government two years ago, Google moved its Chinese search servers outside the mainland, to Hong Kong. People in Beijing, Shanghai, and elsewhere on the mainland can still use Google, but their queries must pass through "Great Firewall" filters on their way out to Hong Kong and then back in again.

One valuable part of this new post is a video that vividly conveys how it feels to run searches from inside the Great Firewall. As I argued years ago (and in these recent updates), the brilliance of the multi-layered screening systems that together make up the Firewall is that they are neither airtight nor fully predictable. Unless you are brazenly searching for some obviously taboo term, you're never certain what exactly has triggered a blockage -- or, often, whether your query is being blocked at all, versus your having run into some routine internet problem.

The first minute or so of the video shows what this is like from the user's end -- indeed, how it felt to me about 36 hours ago, when I was trying to do some searches in Shanghai. You enter one query, and it works fine. Then you enter a seemingly similar one -- and, inexplicably, your internet connection seems to die for a while. Then, after a "penalty box" period (whose existence or duration is never explained to you), it comes back. Please do watch:

The post then goes on to explain ways in which users can unintentionally run afoul of the Great Firewall, and how they might avoid doing so. For instance: a significant number of "harmless" searches end up being blocked because of coincidental overlap with sensitive names. The post gives the example of the character 江, Jiang, which means "river" and is part of many normal Chinese words and names. (For instance, a famous resort town is named Lijiang, 丽江, and the the Yangtze River is written 长江, Chang Jiang.) But 江 is a "sensitive" character for the Firewall, presumably because it's the family name of the former president Jiang Zemin, 江泽民. Therefore if you are looking for information about the Yangtze River and you innocently enter its normal Chinese name, 长江, you can end up in the penalty box.

The post gives many more details, and explains a new Google search utility that will pop up to warn users in China when they may be getting into trouble without realizing it. For instance, here is what they would see if they entered the Yangtze River / 长江 query:
That warning, shown in English above, would appear in whatever language the user had chosen for his or her Google settings.

There is much more at the post, which is worth study on the ongoing rich question of China's conflicted embrace of the Internet. This is a first reaction on my part; more after I've looked at it further and heard from friends in China about how much difference this makes. And for now, congrats to Google for revealing some of what it has learned about a system whose effectiveness has been magnified by its mystery.

Update. A reader adds this point:

I like it; it's not only helpful, but serves as a constant, in-your-face reminder to users in China that the government is censoring search results to such an extent that even seemingly innocuous words can get one's connection interrupted.  In other words; it's a passive aggressive way for Google to point out just how insecure the Chinese government is. 
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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