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Google blames China for blocked searches
Published on: 2010-03-31
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Chinese internet users suffered more serious problems with Google searches on Wednesday amid confusion over who was to blame for a series of disruptions that have occured since the company last week moved its search engine to Hong Kong.

The problems – where searches in Chinese for words as harmless as “dog” or “home” produce browser error messages – re-emerged just hours after users reported that major disruptions that continued from Tuesday evening appeared to have disappeared.

Google on Tuesday evening took responsibility for the problems. The company said the blockages occured when it inserted new computer code into its system. It suggested that the change – which included the letters “rfa” – caused Chinese filters to confuse its search pages with Radio Free Asia, a site which is blocked by China.

However, the company created confusion just hours later when it reversed the previous announcement, saying China was to blame for the disruptions. Google said that since it had introduced the new code much earlier, the blockages must have been the result of China’s so-called “Great Firewall” becoming more restrictive.

The disruption on Tuesday evening was the first time many Chinese internet users found themselves unable to use Google’s services since the company last week moved its search engine to Hong Kong to avoid having to comply with censorship restrictions on the mainland.

Google and many observers have feared a backlash from Beijing over the move. While internet users in China have experienced similar problems several times over the past before Tuesday, the previous blockages lasted less than an hour.

“This gives me whiplash,” said an executive at an agency that sells advertising on both Google and Baidu, the Chinese online search market leader.

Search engine experts said frequent disruptions could cause Google to lose most of its advertising business in China, the market with the world’s largest internet population.

One employee at Google China described the situation as “death by a thousand cuts”. The person said that was what the Chinese censors had done to Google.com before the company launched its Google.cn search engine on the mainland.

People in mainland China can circumvent the “Great Firewall of China” by using proxy servers or virtual private networks. But Google could quickly lose most of its advertising customers in the country if the outages continue.

“If that happens a few more times, advertisers will lose trust completely and switch,” said an agent for Google in China.

Analysts estimate that about one-third of Google’s advertising from Chinese customers is aimed at foreign markets and runs on Google sites outside the country.

“This portion would obviously not be affected,” said Edward Yu, chief executive of Analysys, the internet research firm.

Google intends to decide whether to keep its more than 300 sales staff in China depending on mainland users’ access to the Hong Kong site.

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