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Regaining moral high ground? Google tells Chinese when they're being censored

BEIJING – Google has started telling users in China when web searches contain keywords that could be tracked by the country's keen-eyed censors, one of the company's top officials announced.

“Starting today we’ll notify users in mainland China when they enter a keyword that may cause connection issues,” Alan Eustace, a Senior Vice President for Google, wrote on the company's Inside Search blog on Thursday.  “By prompting people to revise their queries, we hope to reduce these disruptions and improve our user experience from mainland China.”

As the video on Eustace's blog shows (see below), triggering connectivity issues on Google.com.hk can be as easy as searching for one of the country’s greatest natural landmarks: The Yangtze River.

Presumably in this case, "Jiang" the Chinese character for river, is a sensitive term because it is also the last name of former Chinese President Jiang Zemin. The 85-year-old, who is thought to still be politically connected, is the focus of constant erroneous rumors and reports about his death.

Consequently, if you are looking for "Chang Jiang," the popular name of the Yangtze River here in China, you could run afoul of sensors looking to block rumors of the former leader's death and have your connection to Google temporarily terminated.

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The video on Eustace's blog shows how it took about 90 seconds after each sensitive search for the connection to be re-established on several Internet browsers and devices.

This graphic shows the message that will appear when users try to search for these restricted words:


Google’s move will ostensibly allow users on the mainland to see when their searches are being censored and understand why the service is disrupted. Other Google products, such as Google Mail and Documents, often fail to load and frequently require refreshing or an enabled virtual private network (VPN) to access freely.

However, since Google’s high profile “pullout” of its search engine from China in 2010, Google’s share of the search market here in China has shrunk from 30 percent in 2009 to 16.6 percent in 2012, according to Beijing-based research firm Analysys International.

Much of that share has been ceded to its Chinese rival, Baidu, which now dominates the arena with 78.5 percent of the search market. Even Google Maps, which was the most popular online mapping service on the mainland for some time, recently lost the top spot  to a competitor.

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Those dwindling mainland users who have undoubtedly already encountered search restrictions and disconnection issues before, but continue to rely on Google, will probably not benefit too much from the company's new measures. After all, many of the users who suffered through 90-second connection resets in the past have already turned to other ways to bypass the restrictions.

What this move will do, though, is help Google regain the moral high ground internationally by reclaiming “Don’t be Evil,” it's informal corporate motto. Google has long fought for a more open Internet around the world, and even created “Transparency Report,” which looks closely at net freedom issues.

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However, privacy issues in the United States and a European Union warning to Google to review its recently revamped privacy policies have haunted the Silicon Valley giant, forcing its data mining practices to the forefront.

Google’s new service may help some mainland Chinese users better understand how Beijing restricts its netizens from accessing certain material, but for the message to be really effective, Google first needs to get people to use its service again. 

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