Google Quietly Removes Censorship Warning Feature For Search Users In China (Updated)

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Google has quietly disabled a feature that notified users of its search service in China when a keyword had been censored by the Chinese government’s internet controls, according to censorship monitoring blog GreatFire.org. The blog reports that the change was made sometime between December 5 and December 8, 2012, with no official statement from Google to announce or explain its removal.

According to GreatFire.org Google has also deleted a help article which explained how to use the feature — which it says indicates that Google is self-censoring in this instance, rather than being blocked by the government (which has happened in the past). “Since the removal of the help article could only be done willingly by Google, the only explanation we see is that Google struck a deal with the Chinese government, giving in to considerable pressure to self-censor,” it writes.

The blog argues that the move “indicates a new development in the relationship between the Chinese government and Google” — since Google previously and successfully fought government attempts to censor its censorship notification feature, not to mention implementing the feature in the first place.  Speculating on what might have caused Mountain View’s change of heart, GreatFire.org writes:

How did the Chinese government force such a candid company to do its bidding? Perhaps the complete blocking of Google Search on Nov 9 was part of it. The block was lifted after less than 24 hours making the move look very peculiar. At the time we speculated that perhaps it was a test of a “block-all-of-Google” button, but this new theory of it being part of pressuring Google looks at least as likely. It may have been an instance of the government showing off its power to Google and using it as a leverage in their negotiations.

Also in November, the throttling and partial blocking of Google’s Mail service was stepped up considerably. In the end, Google may have decided that providing a restricted version of Google Search and a slow but usable Gmail to Chinese users is much better than being completely cut off.

We’ve reached out to Google for confirmation that it has removed its censorship notification feature for users in China, and — if it has self-censored in this instance — to ask for its reasons for doing so. We’ll update this article with any response. Update: Google has now confirmed to TechCrunch that it has removed the notification feature. The company said it did not have a statement at this time.

Sources close to the matter suggest Google pulled the feature because it was making it more difficult for users to access its search services. The feature was originally conceived to counteract Chinese government internet controls which were reportedly blocking access to Google search for 90 seconds if a user attempted to search for a banned word.

By preemptively flagging banned words the hope was the notification feature gave users a chance to search for an alternative terms — and thereby avoid being locked out of Google altogether. However, since the notification feature was implemented, access to Google’s search engine in China has been blocked more often than usual — presumably because the Chinese government was unhappy about the feature’s existence — meaning even fewer users were able to use Google search. Ergo: not the kind of outcome Google was hoping for.

Google’s keyword censorship notification feature displayed the following message when a search result would be blocked by the Chinese government:

Google keyword censorship

GreatFire.org also has a screengrab of the Google help article explaining the anti-censorship feature — also now removed by Google:

google

Google’s move comes at a time when the Chinese government has been tightening its online controls by clamping down on social media accounts and passing a law requiring people to use their real names when signing up for the internet and phone services.