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Google turns off Chinese censorship alert service

Chocolate factory going soft?

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Google has ditched a much talked-about anti-censorship service in China just six months after launch, in what could be viewed as the web giant making key concessions over the protection of online freedoms.

The Chocolate Factory announced the feature in a blog post at the end of May last year.

Under the subtext of “improving the search experience”, Google said the new feature would notify users if a keyword is likely to cause connection problems by triggering the Great Firewall’s content filtering system.

Users would then be given the choice of continuing with their search, avoiding any blocks by re-writing the keywords in Latin pinyin script, or following a link to a help page to find out more.

However, not-for-profit Greatfire.org, which monitors censorship in the People’s Republic, has discovered that the service was turned off “sometime between December 5 and December 8”. A help page was deleted around the same time.

“Since Google moved its search engine to Hong Kong in 2010, censorship of its services such as YouTube, Google Plus and thousands of keywords on Google Search has been done by the Great Firewall, out of control of Google,” Greatfire.org wrote in a blog post.

“This latest move was fully controlled by Google and can as such only be described as self-censorship.”

The same post notes that even though the service has been gone for around a month, no-one seems to have noticed until now.

As the censorship-monitoring organisation explains, Google has had problems keeping the feature available to mainland Chinese users. The authorities initially blocked the JavaScript file containing the function and data of blocked keywords, forcing Google to change its URL.

After that URL was blocked again, Google decided upon a new circumvention strategy – embedding the censorship alert function in the HTML of its home page, thus making it very difficult for the Great Firewall to block without taking down the entire site.

Despite going to such lengths, the feature is now switched off.

Google couldn’t immediately be reached for comment as to why, although it would be difficult not to view it in the context of increasing pressure from the Chinese authorities which saw Google Search blocked completely for a day and Gmail suffering sustained outages.

Google’s slice of the search pie in China sits at under five per cent today, however reports have emerged from Bloomberg and elsewhere that it’s set to partner with rising local star Qihoo 360 to take on Baidu, which may have influenced its decision to toe the Party line on censorship for now.

For its part, the Chinese government has remained resolutely resistant to international calls for it to relax internet restrictions.

The incoming Party leadership has already approved an apparent crack down on VPN service providers and the regulation of the mobile app industry, as well as instituting real name registration for all internet users. ®

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