How sophisticated is China's Great Firewall? Well, it sure seems to have Google at sixes and sevens.
Widely seen as one of the world's brainiest companies, famous for using complicated mathematical and computer-programming questions to test prospective employees, the U.S. Internet giant for the second time in four months found itself Friday in an embarrassing state of confusion about the state of its Chinese operations.
Sometime early Friday morning China time (Thursday afternoon in California), Google's 'Mainland China service availability' page started tagging its Web search category with a red 'X' that stands for 'Fully Blocked' (in fact, 'Fully Blocked' means 67% to 100% blocked, Google says). Google set up the service-availability page to enable the public to keep track of its China operations in March, when it halted self-censorship of its Chinese search engine and moved it to Hong Kong to avoid Beijing's censorship laws.
The change prompted a flurry of news reports in the U.S. that Google's search service was fully blocked in China for the first time since the March move-news that revived concerns about Google's status in China, which had been somewhat allayed after it won renewal of its license last month.
But when Google users in China tried testing the search service, they found no evidence of blockage.
Two hours after the initial reports surfaced, Google clarified. 'Because of the way we measure accessibility in China, it's possible that our machines could overestimate the level of blockage,' a Google spokesman said. 'That seems to be what happened last night when there was a relatively small blockage. It appears now that users in China are accessing our properties normally.' The company also noted that the service availability website is 'not a real-time tool.' By midday in China, the site had been revised to show Web search in China only 'Partially Blocked' (i.e. 10% to 66%).
The incident was a sort of funhouse-mirror image of an equally confusing episode in late March, when Google search sites in China did experience an abrupt and sweeping outage. In that case, Google first blamed itself, citing a technical change, then faulted the Great Firewall-just as service returned to normal.
The point here isn't just to laugh at the befuddlement of geeks. After all, experts have long noted that China's system of Internet monitoring and filtering is perhaps the most extensive, sophisticated and secretive in the world-designed to be obscure and confusing, so that it is less obvious and harder to circumvent.
But these incidents do point up a larger problem for Google in China, one that persists even after its license renewal. Providing stable service for Chinese users was a big reason Google started its Google.cn site in 2006, after years of intermittent disruptions. Now that it has effectively dismantled that service, renewed disruptions-or even reports of disruptions that turn out not to have happened-may create a perception among Chinese users Google's service is unreliable, and prompt some to decide its not worth trying.
Already, in the second quarter, Google's share of China's search market fell about six percentage points to 24%, while Chinese rival Baidu's rose by the same margin to 70%.
Beijing may not need to cancel Google's license. Death by a thousand disruptions could be just as effective.