Google has quietly deactivated a feature for users of its search engine from mainland China that notified them of a potential government-backed disruption in service when sensitive keywords were inputted, censorship monitoring service Great Fire reports.
According to Great Fire’s records, Google removed the warning sometime in early December. It has also taken down the support page explaining the now defunct feature. The company first turned the notification on last May after internal research revealed that searching for certain censored keywords from within China would cause the search engine to stop working, and the government has attempted on multiple occasions to shut down the feature in the intervening months.
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In November, the issue escalated when Chinese government temporarily blocked access to all Google services, including Maps, Docs and Gmail. Though the full block was eventually rescinded, the products still face obstructions, as they are currently so slow as to be almost unusable. Google’s original intent with introducing the feature was to improve the user experience, but it may have actually backfired by jeopardizing both search and other services. As such, its rolling back is most likely a calculated effort on the company’s part to restore its products to their earlier status.
The move is, however, an interesting one, as it could be taken as an act of self-censorship. Still, the feature didn’t provide much functional use other than to explain to users that the government, rather than Google, was to blame for the broken connections and help them avoid the temporary lockout if they so desired.
Google and China have repeatedly butted heads over censorship. The search engine refused to censor its results in China in 2010 and was thus forced out of the country. Google.cn currently redirects to Google.hk, and the Chinese government censors sensitive keywords using its own filtering system.
After the loss of its bread-and-butter search service in China, Google has faced a gradual attrition of its other products. In recent months, it shut down its Music and Shopping services in the country.
Even as Google’s relationship with the Chinese government has crumbled, the company is continuing to invest across Asia. Three data centers are currently being built in the region, with facilities in Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong. The Hong Kong location is of particular note, as it will come under full Chinese jurisdiction in 2047 and could potentially be subject to government intervention ahead of schedule. Of course, 30+ years is a long time in the Internet age, but Google will have counted the costs before opening a center in such close proximity to the mainland.
China appears to be in the process of tightening its control on the domestic Internet. It recently passed a law that will require real-name registration for all Internet users. Even with the increased restrictions, some loopholes remain. The New York Times recently called attention to the apparent easy access to illegal drugs and guns online, while the newspaper’s own site remains blocked.
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