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Gmail: China Versus Google
| published December 30, 2014 |

By Thursday Review staff

It’s not exactly David versus Goliath, and besides, some would make a good argument that the battle is more like Goliath One versus Goliath Two.

The government of China has been on a campaign to reduce the footprint of Gmail across a country with more than a billion people. And beginning on and around Christmas Day, Google’s overall traffic in China has dropped off considerably—the result, Google says, of deliberate technological efforts by Beijing to curtail or eliminate the use of Google’s popular email platform called Gmail. Gmail is free, and it is widely used throughout the world.

According to a Chinese-based non-profit group called Great Fire (, the government in Beijing is engaged in what amounts to censorship on a grand scale. This has been accomplished by migrating most Google-related activity to outside of China’s institutional firewall. Gmail was almost completely shut down for about four days, and according to Google, which is based in California, the problem was not with it, or with its regional equipment located in Hong Kong.

Gmail is the most popular email platform in the world, with tens of millions of users in China.

According to computer experts and hackers, a similar effort by Beijing to push Google’s footprint outside of the national firewall back in June failed, because government networkers left loopholes in the code which allows or disallows traffic to pass. The June attempt to shut down Google was, some human rights activists believe, a move by Beijing to squelch a national conversation and widespread efforts to recognize the 20th anniversary of the military crackdown at Tiananmen Square. Gmail users in China last summer were still able to operate Gmail by simply using other devices and software, such as some Apple products.

The June Google disruptions apparently continued intermittently for several months, and many activists believe that it was the work of the government. Only those using Apple devices and some types of Microsoft products were able to circumvent the ongoing problems.

But the most recent shutdown, according to Great Fire and others (including thousands of Gmail users in China with alternate contacts with the rest of the world) say that all forms of Gmail access were effectively squelched starting last week.

For its part, government spokespersons in Beijing say they know nothing of any official attempt to restrict access to Gmail or other Google products or services. But Google’s own analysts and cyber sleuths say that whatever has inhibited access to Gmail is emanating from within China (and affecting only those in China), and is not related Google hardware or software. Furthermore, according to some computer experts, such a widespread shutdown within a country could only be the work of a top government agency. Human rights activists in China have long feared that Beijing might ramp up its controls over internet access.

Beginning late yesterday (Monday), Google and Gmail services began to flicker back to life, though the most recent reports from China indicate that the service is much slower and clumsier than before the outage.

Google and the government of China have been at loggerheads before. In 2010, Google coders discovered that Beijing had launched a cyber-attack against the popular search engine and against Gmail users with Chinese internet addresses. Among other things, Google claims that China was stealing it intellectual property, and was harvesting the personal data of users in China in an effort to spy on its citizens and to flag potential dissidents.

Gmail has approximately 425 million users in almost every country. Popular with individual users, it is also widely used by small and medium-sized businesses who want a less expensive platform for email service.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Was It Worth All The Fuss?; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; December 26, 2014.

Will Hong Kong’s Protest Movement Falter?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 26,2014.