Google blames China ‘blockage’ on miscalculation

Google said on Thursday that its search and advertising services were being blocked in China for first time since its groundbreaking compromise with the Chinese government earlier this month.

But Google later attributed the blockage to a miscalculation on its part.

“Because of the way we measure accessibility in China, it’s possible that our machines could overestimate the level of blockage,” Google said in a statement. “That seems to be what happened last night when there was a relatively small blockage. It appears now that users in China are accessing our properties normally.”

The reported disruption cast a cloud over what had been seen as a victory for both sides, with the Chinese government renewing Google’s licence to operate just weeks ago.

That deal allowed Google to continue serving Chinese users with an uncensored service from Hong Kong.

Several people in China also said that services were working again. The Financial Times was able to access Google search from Beijing. People contacted by the FT in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Zhengzhou also said they were not experiencing any problems.

“All human beings I’ve heard from in China say it’s not blocked,” said Rebecca MacKinnon, a China expert and fellow at the New America Foundation. “Until multiple humans in multiple locations in China confirm that Google services are blocked, it’s too early to jump to conclusions.”

People close to Google had expressed concern at the time of the compromise that Chinese authorities could disrupt the service coming from Hong Kong. Persistent disruption could weaken Google’s position in China, these people warned.

“From China’s perspective [this compromise] hasn’t been enough,” said Michael Gartenberg, a technology analyst with the Altimeter Group. “They want Google to play entirely by Chinese rules.”

If China has decided to block Google’s search service, it will leave Google with limited options. “The only card they have at this point is to back down,” said Mr Gartenberg. “If they return to the market they will return under Chinese rules. And their past language has made it clear that this wasn’t going to be the case.”

Google maintains a website that documents its mainland China service availability. On Thursday, for the first time in months, both search and ads were reported to be “fully blocked”. The company, however, said that this page does not display real time results.

Google has said it would not censor results in China, and has shown little willingness to compromise. The Chinese government has viewed Google’s declaration of war on censorship as an affront because it has triggered widespread open debate of practices Beijing refuses to discuss.

Google’s move is also a reversal of the company’s own earlier decision in 2005 to compromise in order to gain access to one of the world’s most promising online search markets. Back then, it agreed to conform with Chinese regulations when it set up a local organisation and a China-based website.

China had 420m internet users as of the end of June according to government statistics.

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