We know how the Chinese government can be restrictive when it comes to online access to information. Google isn’t exactly welcome in China, after an issue involving Google’s accusation that Chinese government hackers have attacked the site. China has since denied access to the Chinese version of Google, and instead redirects users to its Hong Kong servers. As such, this has had serious repercussions in the mobile industry. Android smartphones in China — or Android derivatives like the Xiaomi phones — don’t have access to Google content, but instead access apps and services through their own brands.
This actually has a good offshoot, with several local companies rising up to the challenge, in terms of offering services. With almost a billion mobile users, and more than half a billion Internet users, this is a huge market. A big part of China’s Internet population go online from mobile devices. Without access to Twitter, Facebook, Gmail Google+ and other such services, local alternatives abound. There are “Weibo” services that are popular microblogging platforms here. In China, Baidu is the dominant search engine, with over 80% of market share. In contrast, Google’s market share in the country is a paltry 16% or so.
While Google has had problems within the so-called Great Firewall of China, the search giant does have services in the country, mostly accessed through VPNs and through its local presence Hong Kong. But during the period in which the Chinese government is changing hands, Google seems to have be totally banned from within the mainland.
A few highlights
- Google services were offline in China starting Friday this week. These were the main google.com page, as well as subdomains like mail.google.com, google-analytics.com, docs.google.com, drive.google.com, maps.google.com, play.google.com and other such services.
- Google has confirmed this block was due to a DNS poisoning attack, in which local DNS servers rerouted clients to a dummy server, hence denying access to the actual Google servers.
- Using a DNS server outside of China will still not get you Google from within the mainland. Google’s own DNS servers (126.96.36.199 and 188.8.131.52) are likewise inaccessible.
The said blockage seems to have coincided with the 18th Party Congress, during which China’s government has been expected to do its once-a-decade leadership change. Google is not alone in this shakedown, though. The Chinese government has been clamping down on other possible sources of dissent. The New York Times notes that government has gone as far as replace books in bookstores and even ban balloons because these could carry protest messages.
China has since lifted the ban, although the nature of DNS poisoning would mean that services will be fully restored within a three-day period during which ISPs refresh their DNS caches. Users can also manually flush their computer’s DNS cache.
Why this is important
As earlier mentioned, China is a big mobile and Internet market. But with severe restrictions on content and access, this can be a particularly difficult market to breach, especially for western firms offering social networking services. More importantly, these blocks are severely limiting to Internet users in the country, who are subject to censorship, and who are even at risk of summary legal proceedings for online dissent. China has also required microblogging service users to register using their real names, a move that was aimed at banning anonymous posts, and therefore a clampdown on dissent.
This arbitrary blockage also indicates that the Chinese government can again arbitrarily block any website or web service if it deems these potentially dangerous to be accessed within its constituency. While the current ban on Google services seems to have been done as a precaution during the current party congress, similar blockages have also been done before, likewise coinciding with events that were potentially politically-charged, such as the Arab Spring.
There is also the question of whether the Chinese government has done this as a test. The ban on Google is currently lifted, but there’s no knowing of whether regulators will enforce a DNS poisoning attack again, or even other methods of blocking.
I’m not sure how many readers we have from China, but if you’re undergoing similar Google downtimes, please share your experiences.