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01 Jun 2012

Google is changing its search service in China so that it will warn users when they are using terms likely to trigger interference from the authorities and suggest ways around the censorship.

The move is likely to further strain already tense relations between the internet giant and Beijing.

"Over the past couple years, we've had a lot of feedback that Google search from mainland China can be inconsistent and unreliable. It depends on the search query and browser, but users are regularly getting error messages like 'this webpage is not available' or 'the connection was reset'. And when that happens, people typically cannot use Google again for a minute or more," Google said in a blogpost Thursday.

The company said it had assessed its systems and failed to find any internal problems. The issues were "correlated with searches for a particular subset of queries," said Google.

For example Google found searches for the character Jiāng, a common surname that also means "river", causes a problem on its own and as part of searches that contain the character. Google users in China experience difficulty searching for Jiang Zemin, China's former president and Lijiang, for example, a city in Yunnan province. Yunnan province has recently been the site of clashes between police and local farmers, reportedly angered over illegal land seizures.

Similar searches on local Chinese sites such as Baidu, the market leader, do not generate the same problems.

Chinese authorities have long censored the internet and monitored its use in order to suppress critics and monitor dissent – a strategy known as the Great Firewall of China. Searches for information on the recent protests and immolations in Tibet, for example, are likely to draw a blank on any search engine.

Now when users type characters that are likely to trigger a blockage, Google will warn the users and suggest they use other terms.

"We've said before that we want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services. Our hope is that these written notifications will help improve the search experience in mainland China," Google said in its blogpost.

Relations between Google and the Chinese authorities appear to have improved in recent months. Beijing recently cleared the search firm's takeover of Motorola. But last year Google accused China of orchestrating a massive attempt to hack "the personal Gmail accounts of hundreds of users including, among others, senior US government officials, Chinese political activists, officials in several Asian countries (predominantly South Korea), military personnel and journalists".

The accusations were angrily denied by the Chinese authorities. Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, called them "chimerical complaints" that had become "obstacles for enhancing global trust between stakeholders in cyberspace."


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