In the course of the long-standing Google–China story, one small announcement made many in China happy: Google would offer SSL encryption on standard searches. Now, this security and openness may be threatened, as attempts to access Google Hong Kong’s encrypted service are returning errors from a connection in Beijing.
When SSL became available for standard searches, it was first set up so you would simply type in https:// instead of http:// before accessing Google. This caused a problem for schools and others who restrict the content their users can search for, in many cases because of laws governing school Internet connections. When SSL is enabled on an HTTPS connection, however, filters can’t block based on the words people search for, because even the query is encrypted. Thus schools were faced with having to block the “google.com” domain for their users, something Google did not want.
Therefore, they amended their strategy to create a new address entirely, encrypted.google.com, instead of offering https://google.com. This may seem like a trivial change, but it’s important for several reasons.
First, and this is no small problem, the word “encrypted” is harder to remember for non-English-literate users. Adding an “s” to the protocol was simple and direct.
Second, more importantly, just as this change separated secure search from standard search for schools to discriminate, another kind of firewall and censorship—the system of content filters in China known collectively as the Great Firewall—can discriminate.
As it turns out today, this has come to pass. After Rebecca MacKinnon noted someone was having trouble reaching Google from China, I tried a few things from my connection in Beijing. After some strange behavior, one problem remains consistent: If I type in “encrypted.google.com.hk,” which is the encrypted version of Google’s Chinese-language search product, which is no longer hosted in the Mainland, then I get sent to an error page and a Baidu search for the URL (see screen shot).
What does this mean? Although these things are notoriously uncertain, what appears to be happening is that at least one connection in China has blocked the Chinese-language encrypted search. Thus searches for sensitive terms or searches that return results containing sensitive words stand the chance of being blocked. I tried some famous ones, and they indeed resulted in an error.
Google has made the decision to make censorship easier for schools, in the process making it easier for China. A Chinese system could of course block Google outright, but this would not still be an issue if that was an easy pill to swallow. Google’s e-mail, translation, and other services may not dominate the market in China, but they are popular among many elites and many others.
As of yet, the U.S. site, encrypted.google.com, is loading as normal from Beijing, but this site lacks customizations for Chinese users. If this condition continues, open information just got one step harder to get from inside the GFW.
Are you in China? Can you access these sites? Leave a comment.