Google Offers Chinese Users New Feature to Detect Censorship Trigger Words

June 1, 2012 Updated: April 2, 2013


Search giant Google said it will show warnings to users in mainland China who are searching a topic that can trigger the regime’s Internet blockade, Google’s boldest move in two years to attract Chinese users.

Google, via a blog post on late Thursday, said it will also provide recommendations and alternative search terms.

“By prompting people to revise their queries, we hope to reduce these disruptions and improve our user experience from mainland China,” wrote Alan Eustace, a senior vice president with the Mountain View, California-based company in a blog post on late Thursday.

Over the years, China has had a tight grip on its Internet, censoring terms related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Falun Gong, blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng, sensitive rumors, and other terms.

“Of course, if users want to press ahead with their original queries they can carry on,” Eustace added.

Google said that after a careful investigation of its own systems, it has not found any problems, but when it looked into user-submitted reports, the company noticed disruptions were linked closely to searches for certain topics.

The company evaluated more than 350,000 of the most popular search terms in China to figure out which ones cause the most disruptions.  

“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,’” Eustace said. “And when that happens, people typically cannot use Google again for a minute or more.”

Many terms that trigger the blockade are “simple everyday Chinese characters,” each of which have different meanings in different contexts, he said.

“For example a search for the single character (Jiang, a common surname that also means “river”) causes a problem on its own,” according to the blog post. The character is also part of other searches including Lijiang, which is a city in Yunnan province.

The character for Zhou, which means week, had similar problems, the company said.

Coincidently, Jiang and Zhou are also the family names of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, and outgoing public security czar Zhou Yongkang, two members of a faction of cadres within the Chinese regime that is now coming under heavy pressure from current leader Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Google now will alert users when they type in a phrase or term that will trigger an error with a drop-down menu and warning message.

“We’ve observed that searching for [the terms in question] in mainland China may temporarily break your connection to Google. This interruption is outside Google’s control,” the message reads. It will also prompt the user to edit their search terms or search the query anyway.

 In years past, Google’s relationship with China has been strained, with the search giant claiming in January 2010 the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists were the subject of cyberattacks.

After that, Google said it would not censor search terms in China and threatened to remove its physical presence in the country.

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