Google’s services for Chinese users remained accessible in China in the half-day after the company closed a censored version of its search engine, but users still worried that angered authorities could move to block Google sites.
Google’s Hong Kong-based search site stayed available in China after Google started redirecting visitors there from its China-based search engine, Google.cn, even though the Hong Kong site returns sensitive results that China usually requires online search providers to filter out.
Google announced the change in a blog post this week, making good on a pledge it made in January to stop censoring in China. China criticized Google’s move but has not hinted at any planned actions against the company.
One way China could respond is by blocking the Google Hong Kong site altogether, said David Wolf, CEO of Wolf Group Asia, a Beijing technology consultancy. Google drew unwelcome attention to its plans for Google.cn by making them public before discussing them with China.
“It has essentially, shall we say, invited the wrath of the dragon upon it,” Wolf said.
But China could also rely on keyword blocking to prevent access to sensitive information through Google’s Hong Kong search engine, he said. “It really all depends on whether China wishes to strike a tit-for-tat blow, or whether China’s interested in showing that they’re not quite as bad as everybody would paint them.”
China resets connections for users in the country whenever they contact an overseas server with a query containing sensitive keywords such as Falun Gong, the name of a spiritual movement banned as a cult in China. China also blocks access inside the country to Web sites ranging from Twitter and Facebook to the official Web site of the Dalai Lama. Both types of blocking affect searches on Google’s Hong Kong site, Google.com.hk, so users may not be able to access certain search results even if the search engine itself does not censor them.
Relying on those measures could mean Chinese authorities take no action against Google. Google’s blog post said the company knows the Chinese government could decide to start blocking Google services at any time. But it also said Google plans to maintain certain business operations in China, including sales and research and development.
Google also appears to hope it can maintain other operations. A free music search and download service, which Google offers only in China, is still available under the Google.cn domain and was linked to from the Hong Kong site.
China also said in recent weeks that it would not limit the use of Google’s Android operating system, which the company licenses to mobile carriers and phone makers, as long as the OS follows regulations. That could leave the door open for Google to keep pursuing Android deals in China, though the company has postponed the availability of Google applications on Android phones from Chinese carriers.
Some local Chinese visited a Google office in Beijing after its announcement to lay flowers on a colored company logo in its grass yard. Others milled outside the building or took pictures.
“I feel regret that such a well-known company is leaving China,” said a woman in her 20s, who gave her surname as Li, as she snapped photos of the building.
“In China it has to play by the rules of the game… so in that sense the government has done nothing wrong,” she said. “But I still hope we normal users will not have our use of the Hong Kong site affected.”
The version of Google’s China search engine for mobile phones, wap.google.cn, could still be accessed by computer or with certain mobile phone connections late Tuesday. Searches there still appeared to be at least partly censored. But using a China Mobile GPRS data connection to visit other Google search sites, such as the Hong Kong site or Google.com, returned error messages.
“Mobile users visiting Google.cn will be directed to Google.com.hk as quickly as we can make the switch, hopefully within the next couple of days,” a Google spokeswoman said in an e-mail.
Google sites that were previously blocked in China, such as YouTube and Blogger, remained inaccessible in the country, and Google created a new Web page to show updates on which Google services are blocked there.
If China does decide to block access to Google’s Hong Kong site, it could do so very quickly, said Wolf. But the longer China goes without blocking it, the stronger the signal will be that it has decided not to do so, he said.