Is there a way to circumvent Google’s censorship in China?



Google.cn is a Chinese language search service targeted towards users in the People’s Republic of China. It was launched on January 25 2006 and it filters search requests to content deemed to be “sensitive” by the government of China. (You can compare search results between the uncensored Chinese language Google.com and the censored Google.cn using the OpenNet Initiative’s Search Comparison tool.)

The filtering takes place in at least three ways:

  • de-listed domains: specific websites are removed entirely from search results; it is as if the website never existed.
  • de-listed urls: specific urls are removed from search results if they contain a de-listed domain.
  • restricted keywords: specific keywords are restricted to searches of web pages hosted in China only.

The New York Times reports that the Chinese government did not give Google a list of sites to block. Rather, Google set-up a computer in China and tested to see what content was accessible and content found to be inaccessible was deemed to be sensitive and added to Google’s blocklist.

For example, the website for Human Rights Watch (hrw.org), which is blocked in China, has also been de-listed from Google.cn. A normal web request to hrw.org from within China triggers an error and the content of the site never loads in a users browser. A search in Google using the modifier “site:” for content on hrw.org (site:hrw.org) on Google.cn yields no results. In China, it is as if hrw.org does not exist.

Is there a way to circumvent Google’s censorship in China?

Google has an advertisement program, Google Adsense/Adwords, that allows one to purchase certain keywords that will display an ad on Google when users search for those words. I created an account with Google Ads and selected that my ad be shown in Chinese to users in China. I noticed that a warning appeared indicating that there may be restrictions on advertising in China.

Google describes some specific categories of content that require licensing (local pdf). This list does not include content that may be sensitive for political reasons.

Due to advertising regulations and laws of the People’s Republic of China, Google AdWords requires advertisers to submit business licenses and approval certificates for the following product categories: Agricultural Chemicals Books/Periodicals Cosmetics Food/Foodstuffs Health Supplements Medical Appliances Medical Services Patents Real Estate Veterinary Medicine

I created my ad (which does not appear to fall under these categories) for hrw.org, which is censored by google.cn, and it was held in a queue waiting to be viewed and labeled “Family Safe”. Only “Family Safe” ads are allowed to be shown by Google in China. Eventually my ad was approved as “Family Safe” and was labeled as currently being shown.

However, my ad was initially not shown on Google.cn.

Google indicates that there is an ad for the search terms I selected, but it is not shown. I emailed Google for an explanation of why my ad was not being shown and was informed that there may be a technical error.

My ad was being shown on the uncensored Chinese language Google, but not the censored Google.cn. Google checks what ads to deliver by location (determined by IP address) and the language setting of your browser. Despite both of these showing that my language was Chinese and my location was in China the ad did not properly appear.

Eventually, my ad began to be shown on Google.cn. While my ad does not appear every time the keywords are searched, it does periodically appear. (See possible explanation below).

Although there are no search results available for hrw.org, my ad for a censored website did appear on some occasions. (See below for a possible explanation.)

This is a neat way to circumvent Google’s censorship. It may be possible to extend this even further. Mirror sites and alternative URLs for censored web sites can be displayed through the use of Google Ads.

For the techies out there…

www.google.cn resolves to several IP addresses:

$ host www.google.cn
www.google.cn is an alias for cn.l.google.com.
cn.l.google.com has address 64.233.189.161
cn.l.google.com has address 64.233.189.162
cn.l.google.com has address 64.233.189.160
cn.l.google.com has address 66.249.89.162
cn.l.google.com has address 66.249.89.161
cn.l.google.com has address 66.249.89.160

When connecting directly to these IP addresses and manually inserting the Host header (Host: www.google.cn) the normal google.cn appears (with filtered results), but the ad is missing.

When connecting directly to alternate Google IP addresses, such as 216.239.57.99 and 64.233.171.99 and manually inserting the Host header (Host: www.google.cn) the normal google.cn appears (with filtered results), the ad does appear.

It appears that some specific IP addresses assigned to serve www.google.cn do not consistently show the ad, while other Google IP addresses do consistently show the ad.

I am still waiting for an explanation from Google.

7 comments.

  1. […] It’s hard to think what constructive steps your average citizen could take to improve the situation here in Egypt now. So I’m taking heart from a fantastic post from Nart Villeneuve over at Internet Censorship Expolorer speculating on a deliciously subversive way to bust Google’s censorship of its Chinese Web results: through the same greed (or sound business sense) that led Google to China in the first place. […]

  2. The NYT article mentions that Google has collected a list of blocked web sites, URL and key words. Is there a way to have them publish that list?

  3. […] Internet Censorship Explorer, a blog associated with the Citizen Lab initiative, discovers that while Google is censoring its search results for Google.cn, it is not censoring the keyword-based advertising that is displayed on the site . After buying an advertisement for the banned website for the Human Rights Watch lobby group, ICE discovers that the ad is displayed on Google.cn. I created my ad (which does not appear to fall under these categories) for hrw.org, which is censored by google.cn, and it was held in a queue waiting to be viewed and labeled “Family Safe”. Only “Family Safe” ads are allowed to be shown by Google in China. Eventually my ad was approved as “Family Safe” and was labeled as currently being shown… My ad was being shown on the uncensored Chinese language Google, but not the censored Google.cn. Google checks what ads to deliver by location (determined by IP address) and the language setting of your browser. Despite both of these showing that my language was Chinese and my location was in China the ad did not properly appear. Eventually, my ad began to be shown on Google.cn. While my ad does not appear every time the keywords are searched, it does periodically appear. Although there are no search results available for hrw.org, my ad for a censored website did appear on some occasions. […]

  4. Its difficult to think about the ways to circumvent Google’s cencorship in China.But NYT article mentions that google has a list of websites,URL and key words. Lets see this list get publish through some source.

  5. […] The CitizenLab blog has an account of bypassing China’s strict search engine censorship of Google.cn with Google AdWords. Seems that after setting up a China geotargeted AdWords account for Human Rights Watch, the blogger was able to have those ads served on Google.cn. Human Rights Watch’s site is blocked in China and delisted from Google.cn’s index according to the CitizenLab blog. My ad was being shown on the uncensored Chinese language Google, but not the censored Google.cn. Google checks what ads to deliver by location (determined by IP address) and the language setting of your browser. Despite both of these showing that my language was Chinese and my location was in China the ad did not properly appear. […]

  6. […] Internet Censorship Explorer, a blog associated with the Citizen Lab initiative, discovers that while Google is censoring its search results for Google.cn, it is not censoring the keyword-based advertising that is displayed on the site . […]

  7. It is all very well sitting back in the comfort and safety of your home and blaming Google.cn for censoring their website. It is a bit different if you are the web administrator that is in China with the threat of a bullet in the back of the head if he or she does not censor your add or URL. FFS wake up and smell the coffee. These people are terrified of steppping out of line. You would be too if you were in their shoes.

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