Google Blames China for Search Outage Amid Confusion

Google users hold a banner wishing the search engine giant well in Hong Kong to avoid Chinese censorshipGoogle (GOOG) struggled to explain what caused mainland Chinese web users to be blocked from the search giant's new Hong Kong-based, Chinese-language search engine. After first blaming itself for a coding glitch, the company then steered blame to the Chinese government.

It was a day of confusing twists that exemplify how broken the relationship between Google and China is. Late Tuesday, Google told DailyFinance that its "search traffic in China is now back to normal" and "for the time being this issue seems to be resolved."

Meanwhile, the Yahoo (YHOO) mail accounts of four foreign journalists working China were reportedly hacked in a further sign of tension with outsiders. Yahoo declined to confirm or deny the hacks, but said it "condemns all cyber attacks regardless of origin or purpose."

After Initial Shock, Confusion

It's been one week since Google rocked the business world by making good on its threat to stop censoring its China-based search engine. Since then Google has faced the wrath of the Chinese government, lost one of its key Chinese partners, and played a running game of cat-and-mouse with Chinese censors. (View a timeline of DailyFinance's coverage of the Google-China fight.)

On Monday, the company said its Chinese mobile services had been partially blocked.

On Tuesday, Google initially blamed itself for a coding error -- the letters "rfa" were thought to have triggered filters for Radio Free Asia. "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," Google said.

Hours later, Google backtracked and shifted responsibility to its Chinese censors, whose Internet censorship operation is known as the Great Firewall of China. Google said it made the "rfa" change a week ago, so "whatever happened today to block must have been as a result of a change in the Great Firewall."

Warning Shot?

Amid the confusion, some speculated the move might have been a "shot across Google's bow" by the Chinese government, which could cripple the Hong-Kong-based search engine. Hours later, Google issued this statement:
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 must have been as a result of a change in the Great Firewall. 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.
What's not resolved is the perilous state of Google's experiment of re-routing its Chinese-language search engine to Hong Kong. As today's outage and resulting confusion show, the situation remains chaotic. And that's not good for Google or its Chinese Web users.
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