Updated 10:37 a.m. with a Google statement that a change in its search parameters appears to have triggered the block of Google.com.hk. More details at the bottom. Updated again at 4:04 p.m. after Google revised its earlier statement, pointing the finger once again at China.
China appeared to up the ante Tuesday in its dispute over Google's refusal to censor Chinese-language search results, blocking mainland Chinese Internet users from using Google search for any query.
Several reports note that Chinese Internet users inside the Great Firewall of China are now unable to do any kind of Google searches at present, including banal searches that have nothing to do with any politically sensitive topics. This could be the nuclear option that Google executives always knew was possible when they decided to bypass censorship laws by hosting Google's Chinese-language search engine in Hong Kong.
However, the Guardian reported that searches could be conducted via browser toolbars, implying the block could be inadvertent. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and it has yet to update its China status dashboard to reflect the block.
China has long blocked particular searches on Google.com, allowing Internet users to conduct the search but preventing them from clicking through to the result. That was part of the reason Google agreed to adhere to China's censorship laws in 2006, because by moving its servers inside of mainland China it could provide a much better searching experience than one that had to be filtered through the Great Firewall.
China's first move following Google's decision last week was to partially block some mobile services, and the government has instructed domestic media companies to adhere to the party line when reporting about the issue.
Updated 10:37 a.m.: Google released a statement later on Tuesday saying that a tweak it made to its search parameters inserted a code string inside search URLs that resembled the URL for Radio Free Asia, a Web site typically blocked by the Great Firewall. The statement follows below in its entirety:
Lots of users in China have been unable to search on Google.com.hk today. 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. We are currently looking at how to resolve this issue.
Updated 4:04 p.m. PDT: Apparently Google spoke too soon: in a revised statement distributed to the media Tuesday afternoon, Google said it made the change to its search parameters last week, and therefore any change reflected Tuesday was a change in the Great Firewall filtering itself.
"Having looked into this issue in more detail, it's clear we actually added this 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," Google said in a statement. "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."
This revision almost raises more questions than it answers: How could Google have been unaware of the timing of its own change? Did the Great Firewall administrators make an adjustment on their end? How closely is Google working with Great Firewall administrators to flag appropriate or inappropriate traffic?
What's clear, as has been pointed out before, is that Google and China have entered into a new era in which mutual suspicion can rule the day.