A Google search page awaits input from a user at an Internet cafe in Beijing. (Alexander F. Yuan / Associated…)
Reporting from San Francisco and Beijing — Tensions ran high again Tuesday when Google Inc. blamed Chinese government censors for a temporary outage of its search engine in mainland China.
Even as access to Google was restored, the public outcry over the interruption underscored the heightened sensitivity of Chinese Internet users who fear Beijing regulators will permanently block Google as retaliation for the company's recent defiant public stand against censorship in China.
China's powerful filtering system, dubbed "the Great Firewall," has blocked other U.S. sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube that ran afoul of government watchdogs.
Last week Google shut down its Chinese-language search engine and redirected users to an uncensored version in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China that still functions as an independent state. The retreat ended Google's four-year experiment operating a Chinese-language search engine under Beijing's restrictive censorship rules.
Shortly after Google announced its withdrawal from China, the state-run Xinhua news agency quoted an unnamed official at the State Council Information Office calling the decision "totally wrong."
Google initially attributed Tuesday's outage to a technical glitch, a string of text -- "gs_rfai" -- that began appearing in Web addresses. Because of the characters "rfa," Chinese filtering systems associated the searches with Radio Free Asia, which is inaccessible in China, the Internet search giant concluded.
Google did not say how the string of text was created. Chinese Internet users speculated that the addition of the characters triggered the error messages.
After an investigation, Google on Tuesday blamed the outage on China's Internet filtering system.
"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," a Google spokesman said. "Our search traffic in China is now back to normal, even though we have not made any changes at our end."
The outage caused a stir in mainland China, where the government's filtering system already blocked users from seeing sensitive results on the Hong Kong search engine. Searches for seemingly innocuous terms such as "Beijing" and "China" returned error messages.
Twitter users across the country reported outages of the search engine starting at around 5 p.m. On Sunday, Google reported that some of its mobile features were partially blocked.
In a separate incident Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that the Yahoo e-mail accounts belonging to foreign journalists appeared to have been hacked, drawing renewed attention to concerns over Internet security in China.
Google's future in China is uncertain. Google, which operated the No. 2 search engine behind Chinese giant Baidu Inc., said it planned to maintain other business operations in China, including a sales team and a research and development facility. Analysts have predicted that the Chinese government will make remaining in China difficult.
UCLA business professor Christopher Tang said Google had handled the dispute poorly. "Once Google opened fire in a public way, it made it very difficult for either side to back down," Tang said.
Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at UC Berkeley and founder of the China Digital Times, said the clash between Google and the Chinese government was inevitable: The technology powerhouse wants information to flow freely, while the rising economic superpower wants to control what its citizens can view online. Qiang and other observers predict China will eventually block access to Google's search engine completely.
"The fact that a significant number of Internet users are using Google products -- its search engine, e-mail, documents -- is really in conflict with the Chinese government's strategy to control the Internet," Qiang said. "Now that Google is publicly defying Chinese censorship in front of the whole world, the government will punish it."
Qiang expects resentment to grow among educated users who depend on Google services for their studies, research and daily lives. But it's unlikely that Chinese netizens will challenge censorship policies in the near future, said Cynthia Wong, an attorney with the Center for Democracy & Technology.
"Hopefully over time it will lead to calls for change domestically, but the short-term impact of Google pulling out of the China market will not be much," Wong said.
Google officials acknowledge that their services could be blocked at any time.