Google rides out service blockages in China

If trouble continues with world's most populated country, Google could suffer

Google's services have been riding a bit of a rollercoaster in China over the last several days.

Google services were blocked in China for about 12 hours, going from last Friday evening into Saturday morning. Then services were restored but only to face a short disruption -- about an hour -- early Monday morning.

As of Monday afternoon Eastern Time, Google services, such as search and Gmail, were up and running in China. YouTube is blocked but that has been the case since 2009.

"This isn't good for Google," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "China is, as most people know, pretty big. They're quickly building a solid middle and upper class -- the kind of folks who want to be wired in all the time. This is Google's prime market and it hurts them to be shut out of it."

A one-hour or even 12-hour blockage wouldn't hurt the company. It's the potential for a much longer blockage that could be problematic for Google, he added.

"It's not a big deal in terms of current revenue, but the future revenue and growth could be huge," said Olds. "I think Google is going to have to ride this out."

Google's trouble with China's government comes just as the country is ushering in a change in its government. Every 10 years, China holds what is called a Communist Party Congress, which is focused on appointing new leadership. The 18th Party Congress began last Thursday.

The Greatfire website, which tracks Internet access in China, noted last week's blockage and ties it together with the political change going on there.

"The fact that Google is blocked now is surely no coincidence," the site noted last Friday. "The big question is whether it will be unblocked again once the congress is over. We will closely monitor developments."

Olds said it's not clear if the blockages have anything to do with the beginning of the congress, or if the China's government is still trading punches with Google.

"It's hard to say if china just wants to black out coverage of their Communist Party Congress or if this signals a new and more permanent situation," he said. "I tend to think that they're going to try to make it last at least a while."

Google isn't the only company getting blocked in China in recent months.

Late last month, China blocked The New York Times' website after the publication ran a story about Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's great family wealth.

And the Bloomberg News site was blocked this past summer after it ran its own story about the wealth accumulated by Vice President Xi Jinping, who is poised to take over as president. The government also is reported to have tried to shut down online discussion about the story.

It also not the first time Google has tangled with the world's most populated country.

The company began offering search services in China under the domain in 2006. From the start, Google censored its search results there based on a mandate by the Chinese government. People within China's borders could try to do searches on the company's site but were sometimes blocked.

In 2009, China began blocking Google's popular YouTube site. It has been blocked ever since.

Then bigger trouble began between the Chinese government and Google in 2010, when the company claimed a cyberattack on its Gmail service came from within China and was aimed at obtaining information on Chinese human rights activists.

At that point, Google said it would no longer abide by China's mandate and stopped censoring search results for its sites, including Google Search, Google News and Google Images.

Soon after that, Google moved the bulk of its Chinese services to a domain in Hong Kong.

Over the past few years, there have been sporadic reports that China's government has intermittently blocked its citizens from accessing Google services, including search and Gmail, under the Hong Kong domain.

However, there had never been an overwhelming blackout of services, and any blockages were not sustained.

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

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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