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New Google Feature Points Out Holes in China’s Firewall

Google users in China will now be notified when they are using search terms that could trigger Internet blocks set up by the country’s government. This new feature is perhaps Google’s boldest move yet in a censorship battle with Beijing that has been going on for two years.

On Thursday the search giant announced that it made a technical change to how its search engine works in China, but it made no actual mention of the government’s extensive Internet controls.

This feature reportedly identifies political and other sensitive terms that are censored by Chinese authorities and responds by suggesting users try alternate terms.

This comes weeks after filters in China were tightened to the extent that searches for basic information such as certain restaurants, universities or even tourist information resulted in blocked content.

Users will now instead be warned that some search terms “may temporarily break your connection to Google,” wrote Google Senior Vice President Alan Eustace.

“Google’s new feature helps shift the conversation from ‘technical glitch’ to ‘government sensitivity,'” said Josh Crandall, principal analyst at Netpop Research. “While it’s difficult to offer clear paths around the Great Firewall to information about censored terms, at least now, users will see the difference between a term that’s been censored and an actual technical problem.”

How Will China Respond?

While this is not the first spat between Google and China, the company has maintained a network of advertising sale offices in the country, and it has been promoting its Android mobile phone operating system in China as well. But censorship remains a tricky point between Beijing and many tech companies, and this could make matters worse.

“It is generally not a good idea to bait any government, but doing it with a superpower could turn out to be incredibly foolish,” said Rob Enderle, principal analyst of the Enderle Group. “Recall the U.S. with WikiLeaks effectively labeled that organization a terrorist organization, locking out most of its funding, and China doing the same thing with Google could result in some rather draconian penalties which could be triggered anytime the top executives found themselves in a state friendly to China or in international waters or air.”

This could end up being costly for Google and its employees.

“Folks growing up in the United States often don’t fully understand the power of government in other countries and that those countries will likely not stop with economic penalties,” Enderle told TechNewsWorld. “Were Google to do this in the U.S. under U.S. rules, they likely wouldn’t be at the same level of risk, but China isn’t the U.S., and the result could range from vastly broader word censorship — actually further damaging free speech there — to direct physical action against Google properties and employees.”

Other companies have experienced the wrath of foreign governments, noted Enderle.

“Microsoft learned the hard way that going to war against a government can be massively expensive. Google is picking a government that is far less controlled than the EU or U.S., and they will likely eventually regret this more than Microsoft regrets their own similar arrogance,” he added.

Closing Markets?

Google’s action could also result in a replay of past events. In the 17th century, the Chinese expelled foreign traders, and it took another hundred years to reopen China to the west.

But this also could be about Google trying to open China rather than close it. The Mountain View, Calif.-based company only has about 16.6 percent of China’s search market, compared to rival Baidu , which maintains 78.5 percent, according to Analysys International. This move could be a way to gain market share.

“This may offer savvy Internet users in China a new opportunity to game the government system to censor information,” Netpop’s Crandall told TechNewsWorld. “But more importantly for Google, it provides a solution to creating the best search experience possible in a highly regulated environment.”

Google did not respond to our request to comment for this story.

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