Now that China is playing hardball with Google by blocking some of its search results, are Gmail and Google Apps business customers at risk?
The search giant tried to address fears of a loss of service among enterprise customers using Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs by offering some technical solutions in a blog posted by the Google Apps team late Tuesday.
For Gmail and Google Apps business customers with operations and employees in China, Google cautioned that the Chinese government could at any time block access to those and other services in mainland China. As a remedy, the company is advising enterprise customers to implement such technical solutions as VPN (virtual private networking), SSH (secure shell) tunneling, or a proxy server.
Services like VPN and SSH would allow employees in mainland China to tunnel into a corporate network outside of the country where they could freely access Gmail and other services.
As Google pointed out, many businesses with global operations already have these types of technical solutions in place. Companies that don't should work with their own IT staff to find the right solution, advised Google.
Google has also set up a status dashboard for China that shows which services are available and which are blocked. From Sunday through Tuesday, the board showed no issues for Gmail but indicated that Google Docs is being partially blocked.
Google obviously doesn't want the turmoil in China to affect the global use and growth of its services such as Gmail and Google Apps. The company ended its blog by stating, "We recognize that these issues are not unique to Google; many technology companies serving users in China face challenges in providing access to their services, and we don't see [Monday's] news [that we are no longer filtering search results in mainland China] changing how we serve you moving forward."
Google's warnings and advice to enterprise customers followed news on Tuesday that China has started blocking certain Google searches in response to the company's decision to stop filtering its Google.cn search results. Rather than shut down its Chinese search engine, Google simply moved it offshore to Hong Kong as a way of skirting China's censorship rules. Users in mainland China who run a Google search now are redirected to the Hong Kong site.
In response, the Chinese government hasn't completely shut off access to Google's search results as it has with services like YouTube and Blogger. But people in mainland China are reportedly having trouble accessing Web sites that appear in search results for what China deems sensitive topics.
Google did acknowledge Wednesday that it is still censoring searches in China for customers that had contracts requiring filtered search results, the Associated Press reported. But Google made it clear that all censoring currently done in China will eventually be phased out.
In its Tuesday blog, Google also said it intends to maintain business operations in mainland China, including R&D and sales operations. But the business repercussions of its showdown with the Chinese government may already be affecting the company.
On Wednesday, the Chinese Web portal Tianya.cn said it would take over control of two services that it had created and formerly run with Google, according to the Associated Press. Though neither Google nor Tianaya.cn could confirm why this action was taken, one analyst quoted by the AP said the portal could have been pressured to distance itself from Google, or it could simply be that Google is trying to break off more of its ties to China.
One person who has more than a vested interest in the Google-China conflict is Google co-founder Sergey Brin. In an interview with the U.K.-based Guardian, Brin called on the U.S. government to take a greater stand against China's censorship of the Internet. Urging Washington to make this issue a high priority, he told the Guardian that "since services and information are our most successful exports, if regulations in China effectively prevent us from being competitive, then they are a trade barrier."
Brin expressed regret over the decision to censor search results when Google set up shop in China in 2006. But he also was surprised over the negative reaction the company received when it announced that it would stop complying with Chinese censorship.
"We have always opposed [censorship] but obviously we have now taken a stronger point of view," Brin told the Guardian. "I was surprised immediately after our January announcement how much resentment there appeared to be among free marketeers."
Brin also expressed hope that the U.S. government and other companies can put more pressure on China to loosen the reins of censorship. "I hope the political system in China evolves so that we can have more direct involvement again," he told the Guardian. "I hope this leads to a path where the doors start to open more."
In a related development, the Guardian reported that a Google search for "Google executives" sends people to a Chinese language site. More details on the possible hack will follow.