Google and many of its most popular subdomains, including Google e-mail, have been blocked by a "DNS poison" in China, according to Chinese Web monitoring site GreatFire.org, an extraordinary step in Web censorship even for the Chinese government.
Attempting to access the Google services in China leads to a vacant IP address. Users with special VPN (virtual private network) services, which are used by expats and some others in China to reach banned sites such as Facebook, can still access Google.
This is the second major outage for Google in China. The first, in 2010, had the site down for about 10 hours. It's still not clear why or whether this was deliberate on China's part. Google had very publicly relocated search servers from mainland China to Hong Kong just a week earlier. Still, this block appears to be unique as it includes Google sub-domains, which handle such services as e-mail and document storage, in addition to search.
GreatFire.org explains why this could be such a big deal:
We've argued before that the authorities didn't dare to fully block GMail since it has too many users already. Fully blocking Google goes much further. ... According to Alexa, it's the Top 5 most used website in China. Never before have so many people been affected by a decision to block a website. If Google stays blocked, many more people in China will become aware of the extent of censorship. How will they react? Will there be protests?
On Twitter, GreatFire.org called the move "one step closer to fully separating the Chinanet from the Internet."
Is this Web freedom in the Xi Jinping era, which begins this week as the vice president starts a 10-year term leading China? The state has been clamping down all week for the once-in-a-decade Party Congress, so it's not clear if this is a temporary move or a permanent one. But, either way, China has made clear that, if it ever considered Google beyond blocking, it doesn't anymore.
The degree of Web freedom vs. censorship is a significant issue for China's leaders, who must balance the economic development that is enabled by Web access vs. the impulse to control discussion and information. We should be careful not to read too much into just Friday's block – it's entirely possible that the ban will lift once the Party Congress ends and never come again – but it doesn't suggest a high degree of Communist Party confidence that more Web freedom would be good for China.