Google and the Chinese government have long been at odds, with Google choosing to stop basing operations in mainland China in 2009 in response to Beijing's efforts at censorship. Google has chosen instead to offer services to mainland Chinese using servers located in Hong Kong. (In normal practice, Google attempts to route users to the servers located the closest to them, or otherwise most quickly accessible; a user in New Hampshire, for example, might be routed to New York.) But this week's actions suggest a raising of the Great Firewall specifically to cut that passageway between the Chinese people and Google's services in Hong Kong.
Zmijewski says that he began testing China's access to Google Search around 7 a.m. Eastern time, using company services based on the mainland. Between two of those tests, access to Google.com dropped off. The Transparency Report released by Google
"We've checked and there's nothing wrong on our end," a Singapore-based Google spokesperson told Reuters. And a spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that she was not aware that Gmail was being blocked in China.
Beijing had begun restricting some access to Google's servers in Hong Kong in this spring's run-up to the 25th anniversary of the pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. But this week's moves signal a total severing of those services. That means that most users in mainland China who attempt to use Gmail or Google Search won't be able to do so.
Beijing is using the bluntest instrument it has available to it to keep Google out, and isn't worried much about who knows it.
Simple blocking of Internet protocol, or IP, addresses is the "easiest and crudest" method that China has for maintaining the effectiveness of its Great Firewall. Beijing also uses so-called "DNS poisoning," or the takeover of the address tables that govern the Internet so that a user who types, say, Twitter.com into her browser window is misdirected to another Web site. And then there's deep packet inspection, such as blocking online references to terms like "Falun Gong" or "Dalai Lama." But those methods can be technologically tricky and expensive.
China is instead opting to stop Google in one, easily executed fell swoop. At least, that is, for most users. Zmijewski, who says that he helped a past employer set up a computer network in mainland China, points out that companies and especially savvy users know to use Virtual Private Networks or alternative IP addresses to figure out ways to outsmart the Great Firewall. But, he says, "the average user can't do that, because they don't know about it."
Those Internet Web users are likely why the Google Search traffic chart for China is still registering users. But, says Zmijewskii, in a country of nearly one and a half billion people, that level of traffic is so small as to be "just noise."
Google's silencing in mainland China isn't all that unusual. The group GreatFire.org reports that of the 1,000 Web sites ranked the most popular by the tracking service Alexa, 163 are, at the moment, blocked in China.
But when it comes to Google, says Zmijewski, "they're tightening the screws a bit, it seems."