What seems to be happening, somewhat surprisingly, is that Chinese authorities are blocking Google’s search engine and other services, including Gmail, Maps and cloud document storage, bringing to a head a conflict that has been brewing since 2009. The blockage was initially noticed by Google, with its Transparency Report website logging a suspicious drop in web traffic in China earlier today. According to Google, the sudden drop was so significant that it was initially believed that something had perhaps gone wrong technically, but a spokesperson told reporters that “we’ve checked and there’s nothing wrong on our end.”
According to Greatfire.org, a site that tracks Internet activity and access in the region, Google and affiliated sites and services have been blocked by authorities, with attempts to reach Google-related sites being re-routed to different sites located in Korea. A spokeswoman for the Chinese consulate in New York, however, told Bloomberg Businessweek that she had not been informed of any such move, and referred all future inquiries to Beijing, where offices were closed due to time zone differences and all attempts to get confirmation went unanswered.
This isn’t the first time that Google services have been blocked by the Chinese authorities; the company’s YouTube has actually been entirely unavailable since 2009 following conflicts over content, and other services have been taken on- and offline on irregular bases in recent years. Two years ago, Google moved its Chinese search engine facilities to Hong Kong after a disagreement with authorities around cyber-attacks that may have originated in China.
Google actually addressed the problems with occasional outages of service in a blog post on the Official Google Search Blog earlier this year, writing that “over the past couple years, we’ve had a lot of feedback that Google Search from mainland China can be inconsistent and unreliable,” and noting that after investigating the complaints, “we’ve noticed that these interruptions are closely correlated with searches into a particular subset of queries.” The response at the time was to add a new feature that would warn users if a particular search was likely to trigger censorship action by Internet watchdogs, something that undoubtedly did little to please Chinese authorities.
This latest, and seemingly blanket, blockage of Google services happens just as Chinese authorities convene the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress, a grand meeting that occurs once ever decade and started on Thursday of this week, with more than 2,000 Communist party delegates from across China meeting in Beijing with a mission to appoint a new generation of leaders. Whether or not the timing is a coincidence or some particular attempt to crackdown on what are deemed subversive online behavior during this time remains to be seen.