Google.com and Gmail were offline in China on Wednesday as Chinese authorities try to exercise more control over Internet content.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

June 25, 2009

3 Min Read

Google appears to have become a pawn in a new, more aggressive campaign by the Chinese government to block information it deems to be unhealthy.

Google.com was inaccessible for about two hours Wednesday evening, according to a report in the English language China Daily. The outage occurred around 9 p.m. Beijing time. Gmail was also affected while Google.cn was not.

It's unclear whether the outage was related to the Chinese government's condemnation of Google last week for including pornographic links in search results lists and search auto-complete suggestions.

Google did not respond to requests for comment.

Coincidentally, on Wednesday, China's Ministry of Health said it would stop porn sites that masquerade as health Web sites.

"The ministry will strengthen its management and supervision of sex health Web sites in the country to guarantee scientific and accurate information and prevent lewd content in disguise," Deng Haihua, head of the ministry's information office told the state-run Xinhua News Service on Wednesday.

The new regulations require Web sites distributing sex-related health content to include source attribution information via watermarks in visual files -- which appears to include both video and images -- or via text for written sexual content. These rules take effect on July 1, the date that China also happens to have set for compliance with its Green Dam Web filtering software mandate.

China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said it will require all PCs sold in the country to include Web filtering software called Green Dam, starting July 1. It remains unclear whether that means the software must be installed and active on all machines, included on a separate installation CD, or is entirely optional. Translations of the original memo come to different conclusions about the specific technical requirements and the MIIT has not issued an authoritative clarification.

But the formal letter of objection issued on Wednesday by U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk indicates that the U.S. government believes the Green Dam software is not optional.

Chinese authorities have faced a drubbing from online critics both inside and outside China for its effort to clean up the Internet. The Communist Party's propaganda arm has reportedly asked media outlets to stop being so critical of Green Dam. But the state-run media hasn't done a very good job making the government's case. A recent report on China State Television (CCTV), for example, included an interview with a young man upset by the pornography available through Google. Chinese bloggers subsequently unmasked the young man, Gao Ye, as an intern at CCTV.

The incident proved to be sufficiently controversial that Google.cn, whether from government pressure or fear of offending, temporarily blocked searches for Gao Ye.

In a blog post on Thursday about that the blowback China has faced from its citizens and, more recently, from the U.S. government, Rebecca MacKinnon, assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong's Journalism and Media Studies Center, observes that the crackdown looks like an attempt to mask embarrassment that it has overreached.

"It seems the government is having trouble finding a face-saving way to climb down," she said. "Rather than admit they made a mistake and work out a sensible solution with domestic and foreign industry, they have chosen instead to escalate in an increasingly irrational manner that serves only to increase Chinese Internet users' scorn and irritation."

MacKinnon also notes that Google seems to have been singled out because its main competitor, the Chinese-owned Baidu, hasn't been forced to remove pornography. However, she also points to Chinese bloggers who claim that Google's persecution is only making it more popular in China.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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