Web users across China on Tuesday reported that all standard searches on Google’s Hong Kong-based website had been blocked, prompting fears of government retaliation following the company’s decision to close its mainland service.
It is not yet clear what caused the problem. In a statement announcing its closure plans last week, Google said: “We very much hope that the Chinese government respects our decision, though we are well aware that it could, at any time, block access to our services.”
It was still possible to search from toolbars on some browsers and to use the advanced search function on the google.com.hk page.
However, standard searches from the page resulted in the internet connection being reset so that no results were displayed, however innocuous the search.
Some people appeared to be unable to access the Hong Kong-based search page at all, while others found google.com searches also returned error messages.
Google declined to offer immediate comment on the problem, which was experienced by users in areas from Guangdong, in the south, to Beijing and Jilin, in the north.
A handful of people reported online that they had been able to conduct some searches unhindered, although it was not clear whether they were using the regular service.
Google’s decision to close its mainland search service saw users redirected to an uncensored Chinese language service hosted in Hong Kong.
Wang Lijian, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology — one of the main official bodies overseeing the internet — told the Wall Street Journal he was unaware of any disruption.
Even if censors are behind the decision, it may not be a permanent measure. Beijing’s own internet filtering system meant searches using sensitive words were already blocked.
Several bloggers suggested the problem had been caused by a string of letters contained in a search parameter.
They said the appearance of “RFA” in the sequence could have been enough to trigger a filter because it is the abbreviation for the US government-funded Radio Free Asia, whose website has long been blocked from China and whose broadcasts have been jammed.
It is not clear, however, why this should suddenly be a problem — although a change in the search parameter or an update of filtering programmes could be responsible.
“The Great Firewall has made a mistake and thinks it’s the name of Radio Free Asia. I suspect it will be corrected quickly, maybe tonight or tomorrow,” Michael Anti, a well-known Chinese blogger, said.
Google has set up a webpage to allow users to monitor the availability of its services in China, but its usefulness has been questioned because it indicated that search was still available.
In January, the company said it was no longer willing to self-censor, citing increasing internet censorship and a Chinese-originated cyber attack which it said targeted human rights activists’ data as well as intellectual property.
Beijing has argued that all governments control internet content and denies any involvement in hacking, which is illegal in China.
It described Google’s decision to close its mainland service as “totally wrong”. – guardian.co.uk