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Google backtracks on cause of China search block

Access returns after mystery snuff

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Updated Again Update: This story has been updated to show that Google first said a change to its search url caused Tuesday's blockage in China but that it has now backtracked to say this was not the case.

On Tuesday, China appeared to cut off mainland access to the Hong Kong-based servers where Google is now offering uncensored Chinese search results. Google originally said that this was caused by a change it made to its search urls, but after further investigation, the company now says this was nor the case.

In any event, search access has now been restored.

The Telegraph reports that users in almost every major Chinese city say they're receiving error pages when trying to query the company's search engine. Apparently, this widespread blockage was put in place at 5pm local time on Tuesday.

Users are still able to visit various Google websites, but error pages are returned on every attempted search, The Telegraph says.

In a statement sent to The Reg Tuesday morning, Google said that the blockage seems to have been triggered by a tweak the company made to its search engine. "In the last 24 hours 'gs_rfai' started appearing in the URLs of Google searches globally as part of a search parameter, a string of characters that sends information about the query to Google so we can return the best result," the company explained.

"Because this parameter contained the letters rfa the great firewall was associating these searches with Radio Free Asia, a service that has been inaccessible in China for a long time - hence the blockage. We are currently looking at how to resolve this issue."

But the company has now backtracked. "Having looked into this issue in more detail, it's clear we actually added this parameter a week ago. So whatever happened today to block Google.com.hk must have been as a result of a change in the Great Firewall," the company told us Tuesday afternoon.

<op>"However, interestingly our search traffic in China is now back to normal--even though we have not made any changes at our end. We will continue to monitor what is going on, but for the time being this issue seems to be resolved."

On Sunday, Google did say that China was at least partially blocking access to some of its mobile services in the country. According to an online dashboard where Google is tracking access to its Chinese services, this partial mobile blockage is still in place.

On January 12, after alleged Chinese hackers pilfered unspecified intellectual property from the company's internal systems, Google said it would stop censoring search results in the country and that it would enter into discussions with the government to determine a means of doing so. More than two months later, on March 22, the company announced it was redirecting Google.cn visitors to its its Hong Kong-based engine, Google.com.hk, where it would provide uncensored search results in simplified Chinese.

A government official overseeing the internet bureau of the State Council Information Office responded to the move by calling it "totally wrong."

"Google has violated its written promise it made when entering the Chinese market by stopping filtering its searching service and blaming China in insinuation for alleged hacker attacks," he said.

"This is totally wrong. We're uncompromisingly opposed to the politicization of commercial issues, and express our discontent and indignation to Google for its unreasonable accusations and conducts."

A day after Google's announcement, The New York Times reported that at least some Chinese users were unable to access the company's search engine.

When Google announced the redirection of searches to Hong Kong servers, it warned that access may be blocked by government officials. Google continues to maintain research and sales operations in the country. ®

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