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The Chinese Government's Gremlins in Google's Works

The Chinese Government's Gremlins in Google's Works

Intermittent outages and performance problems that make it appear Gmail is failing in China are actually caused by the government's deliberate interference, says Google, which maintains its systems are functioning just fine. The uprisings in the Middle East have apparently caused Chinese officials to be even more nervous than usual about allowing citizens to access some of the most popular online channels of communication.

By Mike Martin
03/22/11 5:00 AM PT

Friendly to capitalism but unfriendly to democracy, the Chinese government is cracking down on that great engine of information democratization, Google, the Internet search giant claims.

Complaints that Google's Gmail email system hasn't been performing up to speed in China prompted Google to level the accusation. Google has investigated the reported problems and found no technical glitches, according to press reports.

Message sending, receiving, and other basic Gmail functions reportedly have been disrupted. A Google people finder established after neighboring Japan's earthquakes and tsunami also failed in China, according to Google. Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser is particularly vulnerable.

The accusation of Chinese interference makes sense given China's recent attempts to halt Middle Eastern-style online dissidence. Facebook, Youtube, Linked In, and other social media sites have been blocked in China, following president Hu Jintao's imposition of stricter Internet controls.

Google Go Home

Google has had problems in China before.

"We've noticed some highly targeted and apparently politically motivated attacks against our users," Google security team members Chris Evans, Robert Swiecki, Michal Zalewski and Billy Rios posted on Google's online security blog earlier this month. "We believe activists may have been a specific target."

Chinese authorities met reports of Gmail hacker attacks in 2010 with official condemnation -- not of the hackers, but of Google.

"The response from Chinese officialdom denouncing Google as an instrument of commercial imperialism is clearly wrong-headed and unhelpful," said Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe President Guy Verhofstadt at the time.

China Syndrome

Google has few options to fight the Chinese government, if indeed it is on a Gmail offensive.

"Google has to rely on users getting an Internet Explorer patch or switching to other browsers," said Rob Rachwald, director of security strategy at ImpervaImperva. "Microsoft will fix the problem in the future, but in the meantime Google can only tread water."

And although last January's hack attacks prompted Google to move off the mainland to Hong Kong, the company is still on Chinese soil.

"With the assumption that Google's Gmail servers are located in Hong Kong, they are still located with the jurisdiction of Chinese authorities," said Darren Hayes, an expert in computer forensics and security and a professor at Pace University's Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems. "Given that, I doubt Google can circumvent the blockage. Google has already given up so much control of their service to the Chinese authorities."

Censored Search

Google arrived six years ago in China, starting a rocky relationship with the global population giant that has centered on the Chinese government's incessant need to censor search results.

"There are so many restrictions in China, from blocked websites like BBC News, to filtered searches," Pace University's Hayes told TechNewsWorld. "One Harvard study estimated that 18,000 websites are blocked from within mainland China."

Even heavily censored Baidu, China's largest search engine, isn't clean enough for the Chinese government. Last month, government officials started Panguso, a government-sponsored search firm devoid of controversial references.

"At the end of the day, the Chinese government probably feels that they could simply set up their own email system, implement greater control of email traffic, in a similar fashion to how China has successfully developed their own popular search engines," Hayes explained.

So why the need to disrupt Gmail, if the government can simply censor it or shut it down in favor of an official rival?

"Internet restrictions that state-owned ISPs must comply with do not apply in Hong Kong," Hayes explained. Instead, hackers would tamper with privately owned email servers from within China, he said.

The impact of a Gmail attack on Google-China in the short term "is tough to determine," said Imperva's Rachwald. "But the long term impact could be significant. Since the government has started to single out Google, their 35 percent share in the Chinese search market in 2009 has now shrunk to 19 percent. More Chinese consumers will switch to other email vendors and minimize Google's diminishing presence."


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