Google, China now playing cat and mouse?

The search firm now blames China for recent site access problems

The Chinese government apparently slowed access to Google Web sites earlier this week, as the search giant last night backed off earlier statements that access to the site was blocked by changes Google made to the engine's search parameters.

That change prompted analysts today to speculate that the two sides might soon become embroiled in a "cat-and-mouse" game over search access in China.

Google had disclosed early this week some users in China were unable to complete Google searches or had intermittent trouble accessing any of Google's Chinese-language sites.

That disclosure prompted some immediate speculation that China was blocking access to the sites because of Google's decision to stop censoring search results in the country.

The speculation abated yesterday afternoon when Google announced that it had accidentally caused the blockage itself.

A spokeswoman told Computerworld then that access to the Chinese site, now run out of Hong Kong, was blocked because its programmers had added a series of letters -- gs_rfai -- to the Web addresses of Google search pages. The spokeswoman explained that "rfa" is associated with Radio Free Asia, a site that China has long blocked. Therefore, adding them automatically caused Google's site to be blocked there.

Now, Google says that something in China's Internet filter, or "great firewall," caused the site to be blocked.

"Having looked into this issue in more detail, it's clear we actually added this [gs_rfai] parameter a week ago. So whatever happened today to block Google.com.hk must have been as a result of a change in the great firewall," a Google spokesman wrote today in an email to Computerworld. "However, interestingly our search traffic in China is now back to normal, even though we have not made any changes at our end. We will continue to monitor what is going on, but for the time being this issue seems to be resolved."

Ezra Gottheil, an analyst with Technology Business Research, said it's possible that the intermittent blockage of Google sites earlier this week could indicate that China is either testing the waters or just trying to make it a bit difficult for users to access the sites.

"If the numbers going to google.com.hk are small, China probably won't bother [with blocking them]. But if the traffic picks up, there will probably be some blockage," he added.

Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group, said an intermittent blockage of Google sites in China could be just the tip of the iceberg as the Chinese government may take further, stronger steps in the coming weeks in retaliation to Google's censorship decision.

"What we could be seeing is the beginning of a cat-and-mouse game with China making subtle changes to their great firewall to block or degrade Google service in China," Olds said. "The intermittent blocking might be China experimenting with new techniques, or it might be them thinking that the best way to cause Google the most trouble is to cause on-and-off problems that are harder to diagnose."

Olds said he expects China to continue responding to Google's move in some ways.

"I wouldn't be surprised to see this pattern play out again and again as China looks to harass Google," noted Olds. "In China's mind, the fact that Google initially thought this problem was their own fault is seen as a victory since it makes it look as if Google doesn't know what their own systems are doing."

As of press time, Google's sites were accessible in China.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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