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New Google tool aims to help users sidestep China censors

June 01, 2012|By Deborah Netburn

Are we on the brink of another Google/China showdown?

In a carefully worded blog post on Google's Official Blog this week, the company said it will start alerting users in mainland China when they have typed in search terms that trigger an "interruption" of service to Google.

The words "censored" and "censorship" never appear in the post, and the company never says that it may be Chinese officials interrupting the service.

The company notes that users in mainland China have long complained that Google search is inconsistent and unreliable.

In a video accompanying the post, Google shows how frustrating conducting a Google search can be for people in mainland China. Searching certain terms -- like river, or McDonald's -- can lead to a message that says "The webpage is not available" and "The connection to www.google.hk has been lost."

When you get a message like that, it can take up to a minute and a half to get back onto Google, even if you keep hitting refresh, or try opening another tab on your browser.

Google says it has taken a "long, hard look" at its systems, but has not found any problems. What it did find is that the "interruptions" are closely correlated with specific search terms.

So now, when a user enters one of the words that Google engineers have identified as problematic, a drop-down menu highlighted in yellow will appear beneath the search box that reads, "We've observed that search for [X] in mainland China may temporarily break your connection to Google. This interruption is outside of Google's control."

The box gives the user the option of editing the search terms, or searching anyway.

"We’ve said before that we want as many people in the world as possible to have access to our services," the company writes. "Our hope is that these written notifications will help improve the search experience in mainland China."

Whether this move will heat things up between China and Google remains to be seen. The two entities have been at odds before, most memorably in 2010 when Google refused to adhere to China's censorship policies and moved its Web search to Hong Kong.

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