Google has accused the Chinese authorities of disrupting its e-mail service inside the country, adding a new twist to the stand-off over censorship that has bedeviled the US company’s attempts to push into the world’s most populous internet market.
The claim by the internet giant on Monday followed weeks of sporadic problems encountered by internet users in mainland China as the government tightened its censorship measures in light of an anonymous online call for a “Jasmine Revolution” in China.
“This is a government blockage carefully designed to look like the problem is with Gmail,” a Google spokesperson said.
The problems that have been reported to take different forms, making it difficult to trace a pattern in the precise nature of the faults, the types of Gmail user affected, or the length of the time the issues have been experienced.
Some users, for instance, have said they periodically fail to send, search or load e-mail, even though they can access their accounts, which gives the impression that the fault lies with Google. In other instances, users in China have been unable to log into Gmail or even access the Gmail site.
“There is no technical issue on our side,” the company spokesperson said. “We have checked extensively.”
Users of other foreign email services have not encountered disruption to the same extent.
Internet users inside China have also been blocked from accessing the emergency “people finder” service that Google has set up to help trace friends or relatives affected by the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, according to one person familiar with the problem.
Since Google confronted the Chinese government over internet censorship and subsequently relocated its Chinese online search to its uncensored Hong Kong site, users in China have experienced on-and-off disruption of several Google services including Gmail.
However, the problems have grown more serious over the past month as content on foreign websites has also been blocked more frequently, and domestic content censored more strictly. In addition, many virtual private networks, normally used to circumvent Beijing’s filtering of foreign sites, have been subject to blackouts.
Witopia, the provider of the VPN most widely used among foreigners in China, said it was struggling to respond to the growing requests for help from customers in China. “Although many are unaffected by increased blocking attempts of VPNs and proxies in mainland China, support volume increased dramatically”, Witopia’s support hotline said.
In an e-mail sent to some customers last week, Bill Bullock, Witopia chief executive, expressed disappointment that the company was being targeted. “[…] we mostly provide service to expats and travellers working and doing business in China. […] Not exactly revolutionaries or dissidents,” he said.
“We weren’t overly political about the censorship of the internet in China and never made that a core part of our message. A little bit, sure, but nothing compared to the degree others did.”