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Communication & Technology

Google takes on China’s censors

Google has fired a new salvo in a censorship battle with Beijing by adding a feature that warns mainland users when they use search keywords that might produce blocked results and suggests they try other terms.

Google’s announcement on Thursday described the change as a technical improvement and made no mention of Beijing’s extensive internet controls. But it comes after filters were tightened so severely in recent weeks that searches for some restaurants, universities and tourist information failed.

Authorities were trying to stamp out talk about an embarrassing scandal surrounding the downfall of Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai .

Google closed its mainland-based search engine in 2010 to avoid co-operating with government censorship. Mainland users can see its Chinese-language site in Hong Kong, but the connection breaks if they search for sensitive terms.

The new feature will alert users if they enter a search term that “may temporarily break your connection to Google”, Google senior vice-president Alan Eustace said in a blog post. He said it would suggest they “try other search terms”.

“By prompting people to revise their queries, we hope to reduce these disruptions and improve our user experience from mainland China,” Eustace wrote.

Google cited as an example the Chinese character jiang (river), without mentioning it is the name of former President Jiang Zemin , the possible reason results are blocked. It says the site will recommend removing the character.

Google could anger Beijing by pointing out individual terms that might produce blocked results. Mainland regulators do not disclose which terms are banned. They try to hide censorship by returning the same error message as for a technical failure, possibly to avoid drawing attention to unwanted topics.

A Google spokesman declined to comment on whether the company was concerned about possible government retaliation.

Wen Yunchao , a prominent Hong Kong-based online media critic, better known by his internet pseudonym Beifeng, said some internet users had decoded more than 400 politically sensitive keywords that would be automatically blocked by mainland censors.

“Google’s new feature is an excellent method to help mainland internet users dig out the terms that are blocked,” Wen said.

“It even encourages mainland internet users to think about why those items are blocked.”

Some mainland internet users have been keen to try out the new search feature.

“All the people in my office tried the new service for fun this afternoon,” Wendy Liu, a Shenzhen-based clerk, said. “It was so laughable when we found ying di – the Chinese word for best actor – blocked as sensitive keyword … we all guess it’s blocked in an attempt to prevent people from criticising Premier Wen Jiabao .”

A book critical of the premier by exiled dissident Yu Jie was titled China’s Best Actor: Wen Jiabao.

South China Morning Post

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