Anyone using the Internet in the PRC has had regular problems. Besides the obvious things those in power don't care for you to see, seemingly random websites (Great Firewall. Ever since Google pulled out of China and started redirecting users to Google's uncensored Hong Kong site, google.com.hk, any Google site or product not completely blocked has had spotty performance (unless you have VPN).
This morning I searched for something on Google and I was redirected to "page not found;" no surprise there. However, when I tried again, this box appeared before the search went through:
In recent attempts to address service issues, Google examined their systems and found that there was a Yangtze River). More after the jump....
After looking at Wikipedia's not-entirely-up-to-date list of blacklisted keywords in the PRC, I found at least some of them don't work in pinyin either (I'll give you a hint: it's not a circle and sounds like "tea in a man") and that while many of these characters are benign on their own, they can be potentially connected to suppressed information. 江, for example, is the surname of Jiang Zemin, former president of the PRC, who was recently rumored to be dead.
The warning service was launched yesterday and there hasn't been an official response from China yet. Although Google isn't naming any names as they did when they blamed the Chinese government for disruptions of Gmail, it's not a mere drop in the bucket. The coverage at Foreign Policy explains why this simple act is so big:
What Google executives won't discuss — at least publicly — is the obvious fact that they are exposing the Chinese government's censorship tactics in an unprecedented way.
Will it make a difference? Maybe or maybe not.
Google is not the search engine of choice among most Chinese people (Baidu dominates nearly 80% of the market), and thus its disruption doesn't affect most people here. Its market share dropped from 30% at its peak in 2009 to nearly half that—loosing 11% alone in 2011 since Google suspended searches on their Mainland China website, google.cn. However Google is still the number two search engine in China. Google and its products like Gmail are also important to some businesses in China (cited by the aforementioned FP article as a reason for Google service being disrupted rather than outright blocked).
While Google may not be Baidu ubiquitous, knowing what to avoid may help persistent Chinese netizens navigate cracks in the Great Firewall. Weibo users (microblogs similar to Twitter) have already been using puns and nicknames to talk about sensitive issues. If the blueprints of the Great Firewall are out there, might it help users get around it? (Similar to Google's research, one MIT student is looking for patterns in Weibo censorship.)
Knowing which characters cause search disruptions may also bring censorship practices to the attention of businesses and officials in China. Because many of the characters blocked are also part of city, province and business names, some government and business elites may not be terribly happy to find out that their search results were disrupted. While concerns about free speech and Internet usage may fall on deaf official ears, when money is on the line, it's a different story.
In 2009, when the Chinese government was planning to require all computers sold in the country to have totalitarian net nanny Green Dam Youth Escort (Lǜbà Huājì Hùháng, 绿坝花季护航) installed, people in China and abroad were speaking out about the software that was purportedly installed to protect children from pornographic material but also "protected" everyone else from anything the government didn't want seen. Netizens passed the (sometimes NSFW) Green Dam Girl Internet meme (Lǜbà Niáng, 绿坝娘) around Chinese bulletin board websites, op-eds were written and US officials complained. But plans came to a halt after businesses criticized Green Dam and the Chinese government slowly backed away.
Could a similar fate befall China's Great Firewall or even parts of it? The censorship is nothing new, but knowing more accurately how it's handled is.