In a move that will surely cause trouble for the Internet search giant, Google is changing its search service for users in China to add a warning that will alert users if they’re using terms that could result in some form of governmental censorship.
In a blog post today, the company announced that it will “notify users in mainland China when they enter a keyword that may cause connection issues,” adding that “[b]y prompting people to revise their queries, we hope to reduce these disruptions and improve our user experience from mainland China.” The problem with the user experience, according to the company, was that many Google Search results would be replaced with error messages reporting that “This webpage is not available,” or “The connection was reset.” “We’ve taken a long, hard look at our systems and have not found any problems,” the blog post continues, “However, after digging into user reports, we’ve noticed that these interruptions are closely correlated with searches for a particular subset of queries.”
The blog post doesn’t mention censorship at all, instead calmly referring to the company’s wish to have “as many people in the world as possible… have access to our services.” However, the company has had tumultuous relations with the Chinese government for some time, even getting to the point of accusing the government last year of attempting to hack the “personal Gmail accounts of hundreds of users including, among others, senior US Government officials, Chinese political activists, officials in several Asian countries (predominantly South Korea), military personnel and journalists.”
It’ll remain to be seen whether or not China will respond to the changes. Technically, Google isn’t actually stopping the Chinese government from censoring results, it’s merely warning users when they might be about to trip the censorship; the blog post announcing the change even offers that “if users want to press ahead with their original queries they can carry on.” And yet – by drawing attention to the issue in this way, and suggesting that their team of engineers has cracked the code of what, exactly, is likely to cause the censored search in the first place – it feels as if this is almost daring China to respond in some way. I wonder how much trouble it would be to permanently offer 404 errors for all of Google Search…