Google's own glitch causes blockage in China

With speculation high that China had blocked Google, company admits to its own error

While speculation has been running rampant online that the Chinese government was beginning to block Google, it seems the company caused its own blockage.

Reports surfaced that users in China were sometimes unable to access Google's site, unable to complete searches and also had intermittent trouble accessing Google's Chinese-language site. That's when speculation erupted that China was blocking Google in retaliation for Google's decision to run an uncensored Web site from Hong Kong.

Seems that's not the case, after all.

"Lots of users in China have been unable to search on Google.com.hk today," said a Google spokesperson in an e-mail to Computerworld. "This blockage seems to have been triggered by a change on Google's part. In the last 24 hours, 'gs_rfai' started appearing in the URLs of Google searches globally as part of a search parameter -- a string of characters that sends information about the query to Google so we can return the best result. Because this parameter contained the letters 'rfa,' the great firewall was associating these searches with Radio Free Asia, a service that has been inaccessible in China for a long time, hence the blockage."

The spokesperson said Google engineers are working on the problem.

This was a bit of an embarrassing mistake for a company in the midst of ongoing trouble with China, said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc.

"If it turns out that Google has inadvertently blocked themselves in China with this gs_rfai glitch, it puts at least a little egg on their faces," he added. "But this isn't really a big deal or anything that will have any impact on their relationship with China or their business in the area. So they'll wipe their collective faces and go back to serving up search results from their Hong Kong outpost."

Olds added, however, that this issue means the world is still waiting to see what China's response will be to Google's decision to stop censoring search results last week.

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.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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