Google Gives Up Censorship Warnings In China

Makes Internet search a little less safe

Google has stopped warning its users in China that searching for certain ‘sensitive’ keywords might interrupt their connection to its services. Free speech campaigners say the search engine has given up the fight against Chinese censorship.

Last year Google started warning Chinese  users about censorship, after some of them observed that entering some keywords into the search field was causing the so-called ‘Great Firewall’ of China to make websites unavailable, and prevent access to Google’s search engine.

The warning message provoked Chinese authorities to come up with new ways to censor the search engine, and was described as “counterproductive” by Google staff. However, it was supported by freedom of speech campaigners, who are disappointed to see it gone.

Zero warning

Google added a warning message to its search services in China in May 2012, in an attempt to counter the Great Firewall – a collection of government monitoring and filtering tools designed to control the country’s Internet.

China was recently named among the 11 countries with the worst rating in ‘Freedom on the Net: A Global Assessment of Internet and Digital Media‘, a report published by US advocacy group Freedom House. Google had previously moved its operations from mainland China to Hong Kong, in order to maintain a degree of independence for its search engine.

According to The Verge, in China, searches with keywords of ‘special interest’, such as ‘freedom’, have been shown to generate a lot of connection errors, with users sometimes being unable to reach Google again for around a minute.

In order to help its users stay on the safe side, the company introduced a warning message to accompany some search terms:

However, after months of heated exchanges with the Chinese authorities, the company quietly shut down the feature in December. Google didn’t announce the cancellation, and it was only reported on Friday, when the Great Fire project noticed that the warning message was gone.

The company later said that the feature hadn’t helped against the blocking, and a source in China told The Guardian this approach was “counterproductive”.

According to Great Fire, within 24 hours of Google launching the new feature back in May, the Great Firewall had blocked the javascript file containing the warning and keyword list. Google responded by changing the URL of the file, which was blocked once again. By the end of the month, Google embedded the whole feature in the HTML of its start page, making it technically impossible to block the warning without blocking Google itself.

However, this decision may have been what  ultimately ended the campaign. Great Fire suggests that Google couldn’t afford to keep the lengthy HTML code embedded in its start page forever. A different theory states that Google was pressured into self-censoring after its search services were suddenly switched off in China on 9 November.

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