Google recently launched an anti-censorship tool for Chinese search users, announcing the update on their Inside Search blog while carefully dancing around any direct mention of government censorship. Searchers will see a warning when the term they are searching for could cause an interruption in their connection with Google.
Google reports they’ve observed that users see messages such as “This webpage is not available,” or “The connection was reset,” followed by service interruptions of a minute or more when searching Google from mainland China. The problem isn’t on their end, they say, noting that they’ve found the interruptions are “closely correlated with searches for a particular subset of queries.”
They explained in the blog post:
We’ve observed that many of the terms triggering error messages are simple everyday Chinese characters, which can have different meanings in different contexts. For example a search for the single character [江] (Jiāng, a common surname that also means “river”) causes a problem on its own, but 江 is also part of other common searches like [丽江] (Lijiang, the name of a city in Yunnan Province), [锦江之星] (the Jinjiang Star hotel chain), and [江苏移动] (Jiangsu Mobile, a mobile phone service). Likewise, searching for [周] (Zhōu, another common surname that also means “week”) triggers an error message, so including this character in other searches—like [周杰伦] (Jay Chou, the Taiwanese pop star), [周星驰] (Stephen Chow, a popular comedian from Hong Kong), or any publication that includes the word “week”—would also be problematic.
To ensure that users understand which queries could result in a frustrating loss of connectivity, Google is now displaying warnings on flagged queries, with options to either edit the search query or continue anyway.
The word “interruption” in the warning links to a Google web search help article that makes clear the interruptions are “are outside Google’s control and unrelated to our technology.” They manage to point the finger at government censors without coming right out and saying “Hi, you’re being censored.”
Google hasn’t actually operated in China since early 2010, when they decided they would no longer censor search results on Google.cn. That move came after Google sustained a cyberattack originating in China, designed to steal the GMail information of Chinese human rights activists. The Chinese government has long denied any involvement.
Users in mainland China can still search using Google Hong Kong.
Google released a video detailing their findings after investigating user complaints. They used three different browsers and searched 350,000 of the most commonly searched terms in China to recreate the issue.