Showing posts with label Google. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Google. Show all posts

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Errors and Insufficient Information in Google's, Bing's, Baidu's, and Sogou's Online Map Services: Confusion Over the Name of a Road in China

For a variety of reasons, on a number of occasions I have found it challenging to figure out the name of a road in China. Two of those reasons are that online maps often lack relevant details and are sometimes incorrect. For example, based on some online maps people could question whether all of the photos in an earlier post were really from Baisha Road as I claimed and weren't instead from Dongguan Road.

Here is how Google Maps depicts the meeting of Baisha Road and Dongguan Road.

Google Maps for the intersection of Baisha Road and Dongguan Road in Jiangmen

Google Maps China, which unlike other versions of Google Maps is accessible in China, similarly labels the roads.

Google Maps China for the intersection of Baisha Road and Dongguan Road in Jiangmen

Starting from the upper right the maps indicate that Dongguan Road continues around the bend in the road. However, the first four photos in the earlier post were all taken at the bend or close to it on either side.

Part of my claim that the photos do indeed capture Baisha Road is based on something quite simple, the streets address signs on the buildings there. For example, here is a sign for 1 Baisha Road.

sign for 1 Baisha Road in Jiangmen

The location of this building neatly matches with the result to a search for the address on China-based Baidu Maps.

Baidu Maps for 1 Baisha Road in Jiangmen

As reflected above, even at the highest zoom levels, Baidu Maps doesn't display a name on the portion of road at and south of the bend (in all the maps south is "down").

Google Maps fails in a search for addresses on Baisha Road. It only returns a result for Baisha Road in general.

Google Maps failed attempt to indicate 1 Baisha Road in Jiangmen

While the marked location is indeed on Baisha Road, it is far from 1 Baisha Road as indicated on Baidu Maps. Unfortunately, any time I have searched for Baisha Road or 1 Baisha Road in Chinese on Google Maps China I get the message "服务器错误. 请稍后重试." indicating there was a server error and suggesting to try again later. I've tried over a span of more than a week and have always had the same result.*

Like Baidu Map, the labels on China-based Sogou Maps at its highest zoom are also ambiguous on the issue, though a Dongguan Road label is closer to the bend.

Sogou Maps for the intersection of Baisha Road and Dongguan Road in Jiangmen

But Sogou indicates a location for 1 Baisha Road similar to Baidu's result.

Sogou Maps for 1 Baisha Road in Jiangmen

Like Google Maps, Bing Maps China** shows Dongguan Road continuing around the bend.

Bing Maps China for the intersection of Baisha Road and Dongguan Road in Jiangmen

The roads are identified similarly with English language settings and for the U.S. version of Bing Maps. Also like Google Maps, the best Bing Maps China can do for a search of 1 Baisha Road is just a general indication for Baisha Road without indicating a specific address.

Bing Maps China failed attempt to indicate 1 Baisha Road in Jiangmen

Bing Maps and Google Maps also can't locate specific addresses for Dongguan Road.

To sum things up . . .

According to Google's or Bing's online map services, the scenes from the one portion of road I photographed are at Dongguan Road and not Baisha Road. They can't locate specific addresses for these two roads though.

The road labels for Baidu Maps and Sogou Maps aren't definitive one way or the other, though Sogou Maps make it look like at least a small part of the area is Dongguan Road. However, the search results for specific addresses indicate this portion of road is Baisha Road. These results match up quite well with the address signs I saw posted on buildings there.

Additionally and finally, there was one other step I took to sort things out. I asked a person working in a shop there. Without hesitation she identified this section of road as Baisha Road.

So while I wouldn't completely rule out a more complicated story indicating otherwise, the overall evidence suggests Google and Bing have it wrong and Baisha Road begins just slightly east of where Baidu Maps and Sogou Maps indicate 1 Baisha Road. While a small portion (the closest 5 meters or so of road) in the first photo might include the western end of Dongguan Road, I feel fine saying that the earlier photos capture Baisha Road.

For added evidence and color, I will later share photos of some buildings from this section of road with posted street addresses. And in another post or two farther down the road (pun unintended), I will examine other limitations and problems, some quite disastrous, with online map services for China. Similar to this post, it will in part serve as a follow-up to a comparison of online map services I did seven years ago. A lot has changed since then . . .

*I get the error message regardless of whether I use a VPN or not. I get the same error message for many other searches I've tried as well, though I have had success at times with some types of searches. It seems searches for specific addresses are especially unlikely to succeed, but at this point I'm not sure of the scope of the problem.

**I tested Bing Maps China at while in China, using a clean browser, and without using a VPN. However if Bing identifies you as outside of China, you may be taken to another web address without the "cn". And you may need to change Bing's settings for country/region or language to achieve a similar, though perhaps not identical, experience.

Disclosure: In the past I worked at Microsoft China. My work did not cover Bing Maps.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Minquan Road Mobile Phone Street in Zhongshan, China

Although many mobile phone stores exist elsewhere in Zhongshan, Guangdong province, Minquan Road in the central Shiqi District may have the greatest concentration. Below are just a few scenes from there during March earlier this year. Most of the stores sell new phones of brands common in many Chinese cities. The Minquan Xinyi Shopping Center — a collection of stalls selling a variety of lesser known brands, more blatant imitations, or second hand phones — is similar to the Bu Ye Cheng (Long Xiao) Communications Market in Shanghai but much smaller in scale. The photos provide a sense of the brands available and how some stores are changing their look to stay "fresh". They also provide context for a particular store which will be the focus of a later post.

Store featuring Vivo, HTC, Samsung, Apple, Xiaomi, Meizu, Oppo, and Gionee

Store featuring Apple

Android robot promoting the iPhone 6

Store promoting Samsung, Huawei, Vivo, Apple, Xiaomi, and Oppo

A store with a strong Apple theme

Store featuring Oppo and HTC

Promotion for Oppo

Minquan Xinyi Shopping Center

Inside the Minquan Xinyi Shopping Center

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

European Union Wants More "Effective and Complete" Censorship for the "Right to be Forgotten"

Several months ago in a deep look at the European Union's online "right to be forgotten", Jeffrey Toobin described what put it into place:
In 1998, a Spanish newspaper called La Vanguardia published two small notices stating that certain property owned by a lawyer named Mario Costeja González was going to be auctioned to pay off his debts. Costeja cleared up the financial difficulties, but the newspaper records continued to surface whenever anyone Googled his name. In 2010, Costeja went to Spanish authorities to demand that the newspaper remove the items from its Web site and that Google remove the links from searches for his name. The Spanish Data Protection Agency, which is the local representative of a Continent-wide network of computer-privacy regulators, denied the claim against La Vanguardia but granted the claim against Google. This spring, the European Court of Justice, which operates as a kind of Supreme Court for the twenty-eight members of the European Union, affirmed the Spanish agency’s decisions. La Vanguardia could leave the Costeja items up on its Web site, but Google was prohibited from linking to them on any searches relating to Costeja’s name. The Court went on to say, in a broadly worded directive, that all individuals in the countries within its jurisdiction had the right to prohibit Google from linking to items that were “inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed and in the light of the time that has elapsed.”
As a recent press release clarifies, the ruling doesn't require the complete removal of applicable links:
The judgment expressly states that the right only affects the results obtained from searches made on the basis of a person’s name and does not require deletion of the link from the indexes of the search engine altogether. That is, the original information will still be accessible using other search terms, or by direct access to the source.
Google has since complied by censoring search results on a case by case basis only on its relevant European websites, such as for Germany. The "localization" of the censorship is similar to how Google once censored, and Bing continues to censor, search results for China — censorship specific to China's regulations only occurred/occurs on their China-based services. There would be an incredible outcry in places such as the U.S. and Europe had China insisted on their censorship rules applying elsewhere.

However, this is essentially what the E.U. now expects in regards to its "right to be forgotten". Mike Masnik sums up a key aspect of the new guidelines:
Specifically, it argues that if a person's privacy rights are violated by having results show up in search engines in Europe, then those same rights are violated if they show up in any non-EU search results as well (all emphasis in the original):
The [data protection working group] considers that in order to give full effect to the data subject’s rights as defined in the Court’s ruling, de-listing decisions must be implemented in such a way that they guarantee the effective and complete protection of data subjects’ rights and that EU law cannot be circumvented. In that sense, limiting de-listing to EU domains on the grounds that users tend to access search engines via their national domains cannot be considered a sufficient means to satisfactorily guarantee the rights of data subjects according to the ruling. In practice, this means that in any case de-listing should also be effective on all relevant .com domains.

Under EU law, everyone has a right to data protection.
The key line here is not actually bolded in the original. It's the "this means that in any case de-listing should also be effective on all relevant .com domains." Basically, if it can be reached from Europe, it has to be blocked. Or, in even shorter form, "EU regulations apply around the globe online."
Even if Google could address the E.U.'s concern by limiting E.U. users to local versions of Google or by censoring across all domains only for requests coming from the EU, either of these methods would likely be easily circumventable through use of a VPN, similar to how VPNs are used in China to access blocked websites. So, even though .com domains are specifically mentioned, it's hard to see how Masnik's summary for the guidelines, "E.U. regulations apply around the globe online", isn't accurate in the end since the search service providers are expected to guarantee "effective and complete protection".

In general, the related issues I've been pondering fall into two categories: 1) the merits and practicality of the "right to be forgotten" and 2) the E.U.'s apparent attempt to unilaterally apply it globally. I will have more to say about both later and will end this post with a question related to China which feels somewhat surreal to even have to ask.

Is it simply a matter of time until the E.U. demands a Chinese online search service accessible in Europe, such as Baidu, selectively "forget" something?

In other words, could the E.U. cause even more censorship in China?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Similarities of a Polluted Beijing and a Slowed Google

Yesterday, I saw Bill Bishop's photo of Beijing:

photo of a smoggy Beijing

Unsurprisingly, at the same time Beijing's air was reported as "hazardous".

Also at the same time, although my internet connection speed was good for regular access to China-based websites, it was extremely slow through the VPN I use to access blocked websites such as Twitter and Google. Here is what Google looked like for at least a minute when I tried to search for images of Beijing:

In this case, the grey placeholders for yet-to-load images seemed especially fitting. They didn't look very different from Bishop's photo or others of Beijing in heavy smog. Pollution blocking light makes one type of image common. Censorship blocking information helps make the other common for me. The visual similarity may be a coincidence, but once again there was a bit of harmony involving China's air.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Google+ and g+ The Urban Harvest in China

Google+, like most of Google's other online services, remains blocked in China.

This is the secondary logo for Google+:

secondary logo for Google+

g+ The Urban Harvest is not blocked in China and will soon open another location in Shanghai at the popular Grand Gateway 66 shopping mall.

This is their sign at the mall when I recently passed by:

sign for The Urban Harvest with a green logo very similar to the Google+ logo

Described on Time Out Shanghai as "equal parts open lab and restaurant", g+ The Urban Harvest states on Shanghai WOW!, "we believe that freshness and sustainability play key roles in maintaining a healthy and natural lifestyle". According to company's website, which at the moment is largely nonfunctional, the "g+" stands for "Green Plus".

This is not the only time in China "g+" or "g plus" has been used as part of a name for a business, including some which existed prior to Google+. For example, the now-closed Club G Plus opened in 2006 in Shanghai and used "G+" in its logos.

G+ logo for Club G Plus in Shanghai

Nonetheless, the similarity of the g+ The Urban Harvest logo and the Google+ logo is remarkable. I can't add much more to this tale, but for more information about the restaurant you could download the Urban Harvest app on iTunes.

screen shot of iTunes page for the Urban Harvest app

Unsurprisingly, they don't appear to offer an app on Google Play.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Assorted Links: Internet Cafes, Johnny Cash, Needing Google, and Discouraging Protests for Democracy

Now seems like a good time for some assorted links. Here we go:

1. One man dreams of a salaried job. Another man never wants one again. They both live in a Japanese Internet cafe as featured in a video by MediaStorm.

2. On a musical note, one man:
had never been a huge music lover. His musical taste was broad, covering Dutch-language songs, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, with a preference for the last named. While music did not occupy an important position in his live, his taste in music had always been very fixed and his preferences stayed the same throughout decades.
But as described in a Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience paper, with a bit of technology he "developed a sudden and distinct musical preference for Johnny Cash following deep brain stimulation".

3. Several years ago I spoke to a student in Guiyang, Guizhou, who was concerned if Google "left China" that her academic research would suffer. With most of Google's services now blocked in China, Offbeat China shares that others in China are expressing similar pragmatic concerns.

4. Finally, but definitely not least . . .

Many Hong Kongers seek a level of democracy that Beijing has indicated it won't allow, regardless of any past promises. In response to plans for large-scale protests in support of more democracy, the international Big Four accounting firms decided to pay a leading role and placed public ads in Hong Kong.

They basically say, "please don't protest for democracy, it could hurt business".

Good to know where Ernst & Young, KPMG, Deloitte Kwan Wong Tan & Fong (Deloitte's Hong Kong unit), and PricewaterhouseCoopers stand.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Google Blocked in China (Part 10¹⁰⁰)

Recently reported the increased blocking of Google's services. As described by Dan Levin in The New York Times:
The authorities in China have made Google’s services largely inaccessible in recent days, a move most likely related to the government’s broad efforts to stifle discussion of the 25th anniversary of the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square on June 3 and 4, 1989.

In addition to Google’s search engines being blocked, the company’s products, including Gmail, Calendar and Translate, have been affected.
I have done some repeated testing over the course of several hours at my location in Hengyang, Hunan province with the VPN I use to "break through" China's Great Firewall (GFW) turned off and using a local DNS servers. My experience was mostly consistent with what is described except I was able to reliably reach:

1. Google China's "splash page" at
2. Google's map service for China at
3. Google's translation service for China at

The map and translation services were useable, but some components didn't quickly or ever load. Notably, all of the above services appear to be based in mainland China. Mainland Chinese users are redirected to Google's Hong Kong servers for other services. Except for one brief initial moment, I have not been able to access Google's services based on servers outside of mainland China.

I would also like to comment on two sentences in the post:
Back in 2009, Google decided to remove itself from China so that it no longer needed to censor its content. But it seems that Google is quite happy that GFW does the censorship work for them.
To be clear, Google has not fully removed itself from China and still has offices, employees, free lunches, etc. here. In 2010 it did stop censoring its search results per China's rules and redirected some of its services to servers in Hong Kong. I would not be surprised if Google is "quite happy" not to be censoring as it did in China before. But I doubt they would characterize the GFW as doing "the censorship work for them". Google has already made it clear it would no longer censor regardless. My guess is that Google prefers the GFW selectively blocking Google search over completely blocking it. But what would make them "quite happy" is if the GFW ceased to exist.

During the course of today's testing, I noticed some curiosities that deserve further attention. If they prove noteworthy, I will share them while also moving forward with posts on other themes.

Finally, as this post proves since I need to access blocked-in-China Blogger to write it, my VPN is working as usual at the moment.

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Power of Paper and Censorship in Thailand

One reason to read George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four" in paperback:

person holding a copy of George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four"

The silent reading protest against the military coup in Thailand occurred in a country which has seen a sharp recent increase in censorship. For one overview of the censorship now occurring in Thailand's traditional media and online social media see Aim Sinpeng's guest post on The Washington Post. A number of Thai companies have readily accommodated the military's requests, but foreign companies with online services popular in Thailand are proving to be more of a challenge. For example, Facebook and Google so far haven't displayed any eagerness to meet with Thai officials and "discuss online anticoup dissent".

Perhaps most telling about what the military has in mind for the long term are plans for a new system to monitor online expression in Thailand:
The director of the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology’s IT crime prevention bureau, Thanit Prapatanan, tells VOA it will likely be several months before the plan for the new control system is worked out.

Thanit cites the example of China, where he argues that filtering does not have a significant impact on society, rather it just blocks some websites deemed dangerous, but all Internet ports are not closed.
Thanit's use of China as a positive example says much.

I won't try to guess what steps Thai's military will take next. But if Thailand follows China's lead in restricting online expression, it's hard to imagine that the censorship won't significantly impact Thailand's society in Twenty Fourteen.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Online Ads in China for Breaking Through the Great Firewall

In previous years, I have documented some of the impact of China's Great Firewall, which selectively blocks or interferes with websites and services on the Internet in China. When I typically connect to the Internet, though, I use a paid-for personal virtual private network (VPN). The VPN allows me to have an online experience as if I were outside of China and not directly affected by the Great Firewall. China has at times taken efforts to block personal VPNs, but the companies providing them can offer new ways to connect. It can feel somewhat like a game of Whac-A-Mole.

Recently, I stopped by a cafe in Hengyang, Hunan province, and sat at a table which had a computer with Internet access. I took advantage of the opportunity to see whether what I saw on a "local" computer presumably not using a VPN differed from what I had seen while not using a VPN on my own computer. Most seemed the same. For example, my own blog was partially blocked, likely due to it having a non-blocked domain name but being hosted on Google's Blogger, which is blocked in China. To serve as a sort of baseline, part of my quick exploration included visiting several foreign websites that I would not expect to be blocked in China. One aspect of what I saw offers an opportunity to highlight some issues regarding VPN usage in China.

I checked ESPN's sports website first. After an initial pause, it loaded and based on just looking at it nothing was obviously amiss*.

ESPN home page with an ad for a VPN service on a computer in Hengyang, China

But one portion of the screen jumped out at me: an advertisement for a "VPN for China" from GoTrusted with the selling point of unblocking websites such as Facebook and YouTube.

I clicked the ad and GoTrusted's website quickly loaded.

GoTrusted home page on a computer in Hengyang, China

Next, I checked two blogs offering viewpoints from different sides of the American political spectrum. One, Balloon Juice, has a more liberal perspective and was not blocked.

Balloon Juice home page with an ad for a VPN service on a computer in Hengyang, China

It had an ad for another site offering VPNs, Facebook and China were again both specifically mentioned. I clicked the ad and the site loaded without any apparent problem. home page on a computer in Hengyang, China

The other blog I visited, Hot Air, offers a more conservative perspective and loaded without any obvious problems as well.

Hot Air home page with an ad for two VPN services on a computer in Hengyang, China

Not only did Hot Air include ads for both of the previously mentioned VPNs, but it also had other ads such as "Explore Topeka" and "Immigration Attorney".

China probably isn't too concerned about ESPN, Balloon Juice, Hot Air, or information on Topeka, but what about the VPN advertisements? Regarding foreign companies offering VPNs, in 2010 CNN reported:
Steve Dickinson, a China-based lawyer with Harris & Moure, an international business law firm, said that companies supplying VPN products in China are technically breaking Chinese law.

"China has no jurisdiction over such persons. As long as they do not physically enter China, there is no risk," he said in an email to CNN.
To which Dan Harris on the China Law Blog added:
... if I were the president of one of these VPN companies, I would at least think long and hard before going to China. And if I were super paranoid, I might even want to know which countries might or might not extradite me to China.
And last year The Wall Street Journal reported:
While companies use commercial VPN services routinely for secure data, foreigners, China's elite and other tech-savvy users can use personal VPNs to leap the Great Firewall to use services like Facebook.

But it is illegal for foreign companies to operate a VPN in China without a local partner, according to lawyers and state-run media ...
GoTrusted, the company I saw advertised on ESPN and Hot Air, lists a U.S. address in Stuart, Florida, on its "About" page and the registrant information for its domain name also has a Stuart, Florida, address. GoTrusted does not mention a Chinese partner., the company I saw advertised on Balloon Juice and Hot Air, is a different case. Its "About" page does not provide a location and only lists an email address. The registrant information for its domain name, though, shows an address in Shanghai, China, with a street I haven't been able to locate on an online map.

This raises a number of questions about the service. For example, is the "company" running based in mainland China? If it is, has it registered its services with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology as it reportedly should? If it isn't based in mainland China, where is it based and why is a Chinese address and phone number listed for the registrant of its domain name? Questions like these aren't only relevant for determining any potential legal jeopardy faced by the company. VPNs should also provide a degree of anonymity, privacy, and security through effective data encryption. I would need to know more about before potentially having confidence I could trust it to meet my expectations in that regards.

Whatever the case may be with GoTrusted and, one can ask whether it is technically illegal to use VPNs in China that are operated by foreign companies technically breaking Chinese law. The site VPN Instructions had this to say in commenting on the WSJ article:
It is not illegal to use a VPN in China if the Virtual Private Network’s nodes and servers are outside of mainland China. The Shanghai-based lawyer we conferred with, along with our deep understanding of China’s Internet landscape, shows us that there are no laws on the books in China that prohibit any user in China from connecting to a VPN outside of mainland China.
I don't know whether the relevant government authorities in China would agree. And I wouldn't tell someone they are 100% in the clear using a VPN from a company operating illegally in China. But I am personally not too worried unless signs appear that China believes it is illegal. I am not aware of anyone being arrested simply for using these VPNs. And China surely knows they are being used.

So some companies are technically breaking Chinese laws by offering VPN services in China, and the users of those VPNs appear to be in the clear, at least at the moment. What about sites with ads for VPNs?

If the VPN is operating legally in China, presumably there are no problems advertising it. If it isn't, I don't know, and I can think of several issues, such as the location of the servers placing the ads, which may be relevant. It would be great to hear from some lawyers and relevant authorities on this topic.

Finally, if ESPN, Balloon Juice, and Hot Air felt concerned about this issue, I suspect they would point out they are not choosing the specific ads to display. The URL for all of the VPN ads began with "". This indicates the ads were placed through Google's advertising service AdSense. Yes, Google, a company with several services blocked in China, is placing VPN ads targeting people who want to be able to access blocked-in-China websites. In other words, it is being paid to do something that could lead to more users being able to fully access its services. There is a certain beauty in that, although I'm sure the money Google earns this way is nothing compared to the additional revenue Google could generate if the Great Firewall ceased to exist.

The above examples are from just three US-based English websites. There is much more to the story of how VPNs are promoted in China. But these ads highlight the current relative "freedom" in China to use VPNs, even if they are periodically blocked and the companies running them are afoul of Chinese law. And they are another sign of how in some ways China's censorship is not as clear cut as most walls, great or not.

*The Chinese words near the bottom of all of the screenshots are the lyrics to songs playing on the computer and not related to the displayed websites.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Vivo and the Giant Inflatable Android Robot in Zhuhai

During a recent visit to a shopping district in Zhuhai's Nanping Town, I spoke to salespeople at several stores, each of which sold a variety of mobile phones. Some of what I heard and saw matched up with what I have seen in reports about China's mobile phone market. But some did not.

An example of the former was the apparent popularity of smartphones running the Android operating system. An example of the latter is highlighted in this photo:

a large blue inflated Android robot with the Vivo logo on a sidewalk at a Zhuhai shopping district

Yes, that's a giant inflatable blue Android robot with the logo of BBK's Vivo brand. If you didn't know before, you can probably now guess that Vivo phones run the Android operating system. Vivo is not a Chinese brand often mentioned in the news or always included in charts of mobile phone market share, but salespeople at a couple of mobile phone stores told me Vivo was their top seller. At some other stores it was near the top. And at one store, when I asked the manager to show me something "interesting" after having looked at a Xiaomi phone, without hesitation he brought me over to a case of Vivo phones. I am not able to verify the claims of Vivo sales, but promotions for Vivo were easy to see at several stores in the form of tents or the common-in-China inflatable arch.

a Vivo sales promotion tent and several Vivo inflatable arches in Zhuhai

There was only one giant Android robot though.

Like the outdoor sales promotions for Xiaomi I saw in the same shopping district, for now this is shared in the spirit of "some of what I saw and heard in one small part of China". Later, I will share a little more in this spirit before discussing recent reports and commentary regarding mobile phone sales in China. I will particularly focus on two brands which have recently received much more media attention than Vivo--Apple and Xiaomi.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Fate of the Android Store in Zhuhai, China: Part II

A year and half ago I took a random bus ride in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, and ended up in the town of Nanping. As I explored the area, in a shopping district I stumbled upon a store that caught my eye and wrote about it posts here and here. At the time, there was much buzz about a fake Apple Store in China. As I later pointed out, a large number of unlicensed stores selling Apple's products and to varying degrees looking like Apple Stores could be found throughout China.

However, the store in Nanping seemed especially unique to me. For a refresher, here is the first photo I shared of Zhuhai's Android Store:

Android Store in Nanping, Zhuhai, China
Ah, the memories...

Four months later I returned to Nanping and found the Android Store remained and now had a imitator nearby.

Recently, I was able to return to Nanping yet again. For the Android Store's fans, I have some difficult news to share. Although it retains some of its previous spirit, the Android Store had a bit of a makeover:

Android Store now with a China Mobile sign
At least there's an Android inflatable arch.

A number of other nearby stores also had changed to China Mobile storefront signs as well.

Despite the change, Android Store fans may be able to take heart from something else. The imitator down the street remains mostly the same on the outside and in Xiangwan, another part of Zhuhai far away from Nanping, I saw this store one evening:

store with Android storefront sign and a large Samsung sign inside
It didn't only sell phones with Android though.

In a later post, I will provide a look at some of what the above mobile phone store and others in Zhuhai are now promoting and selling. There are some notable differences from last year.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Washington Post's WorldViews Corrects Statements About Google China

Yesterday I pushed back against Caitlin Dewey's claims in the blog post "Wikipedia largely alone in defying Chinese self-censorship demands" on The Washington Times. Amongst other issues, I pointed out that the statement "Google China complies with government censorship laws and does not surface pages related to to banned topics" was not accurate.

Dewey later provided an update, which I noted in an update to my post:
Dewey provided the following update to her post:
Samuel Wade at the China Digital Times points out that, while Google formally follows local censorship laws, it also quietly redirects Chinese users from to — which helps them avoid mainland filtering.
Hmm... I'll just say that the biggest impact of redirecting users in mainland China to Google's Hong Kong site is it allows Google to legally not censor search results as required by mainland Chinese law. However, the Great Firewall selectively filters those searches. Google offers encrypted search, which would be difficult for the Great Firewall to filter, but that's often entirely blocked by the Great Firewall. I just tried the encrypted search now and was able to successfully search for a typically blocked query. However, I was soon blocked from continued use of Google. This "messy" sort of blocking is very common with Google in China.
More recently, Dewey edited her post again:
Correction: This post originally stated that Google formally complies with government censorship laws in China. While that is the company’s policy in other countries, it has not been Google’s policy in China since 2010. The post has been corrected.

The corrections include this section on Google:
Google: Google has a long and complicated legacy in China, which has put it on both sides of the censorship debate. Since 2010, however, Google’s Chinese search has been based out of Hong Kong, where Chinese censorship laws don’t apply. (Outside of China, the company has a policy of removing pages from search as required by law — in Germany, for instance, the site takes down pages that glorify Nazism.) In January, Google China removed a feature that told users when their results were censored.
Dewey still does not mention that Wikipedia's encrypted version is currently blocked in China. This provides important context for her point that "Wikipedia offers an encrypted version of the site to help users evade the firewall" and another example of how Wikipedia is not "alone" in China.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Wikipedia is Not Alone in China

In the WorldViews blog post "Wikipedia largely alone in defying Chinese self-censorship demands", Caitlin Dewey makes several claims deserving response.

Dewey writes:
Most of the sites that operate in China obey censorship rules, which ban information on politically sensitive topics such Tibet, the spiritual movement Falun Gong, and the 1989 protests and crackdown most commonly associated with Tiananmen Square.

When it comes to defying censors outright, Wikipedia is an exception, though China’s Great Firewall also blocks a number of prominent American sites. (That doesn’t necessarily imply a stance against censorship on the blocked site’s part — YouTube and Blogspot are both owned by Google, for instance, which already filters results on its search platform within China.)

1. Google: Google China complies with government censorship laws and does not surface pages related to to banned topics. In January, Google removed a feature that told users when their results were censored.
However, Google does not filter "results on its search platform within China". As Google announced on March 22, 2010:
... earlier today we stopped censoring our search services—Google Search, Google News, and Google Images—on Users visiting are now being redirected to, where we are offering uncensored search in simplified Chinese, specifically designed for users in mainland China and delivered via our servers in Hong Kong.
As far as I can tell, this remains true today.

Dewey's claim that Wikipedia is "an exception" and "largely alone" appears to be specific to "top 10 American Web sites by global traffic" which "operate" in China and do not censor in accordance with China's laws. By "operate", I assume Dewey means "are not blocked" since none of Wikipedia's servers are in China. In regards to Wikipedia, Dewey writes:
Wikipedia doesn’t censor its content in China, regardless of language, though China’s Great Firewall automatically blocks controversial pages. Wikipedia offers an encrypted version of the site to help users evade the firewall.
As Dewey notes,  selected "sensitive" articles are indeed blocked in China -- similar to how Google Search is now selectively blocked by the Great Firewall. But this is not all that is blocked. Wikipedia’s entire encrypted version is now blocked in China.

So yes, Wikipedia does not censor according to Chinese laws. But the same could be said of at least half of the other "top 10 American Web sites by global traffic", including Google Search. And yes, unlike Wikipedia, several of those sites which don't censor according to Chinese laws, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, are entirely blocked by China's Great Firewall. But Wikipedia does not operate normally in China and faces significant blocking despite being partially available. And it is not alone in that respect. Just ask Google.

Update: Dewey provided the following update to her post:
Samuel Wade at the China Digital Times points out that, while Google formally follows local censorship laws, it also quietly redirects Chinese users from to — which helps them avoid mainland filtering.
Hmm... I'll just say that the biggest impact of redirecting users in mainland China to Google's Hong Kong site is it allows Google to legally not censor search results as required by mainland Chinese law. However, the Great Firewall selectively filters those searches. Google offers encrypted search, which would be difficult for the Great Firewall to filter, but that's often entirely blocked by the Great Firewall. I just tried the encrypted search now and was able to successfully search for a typically blocked query. However, I was soon blocked from continued use of Google. This "messy" sort of blocking is very common with Google in China.

Update 2: Dewey's post has been updated again with corrections. For some brief commentary, see my more recent post here.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A New Online View from Cambodia's Streets

Earlier this year I posted photos from Phnom Penh of people riding pedal-powered vehiclesmotorbikes, and motorized-vehicles which were pulling or pushing something. Not only did the photos include a variety of vehicles, but they also captured many other aspects of life in Cambodia's capital city.

If all goes as planned, many more street scenes will be available online through Google's Street View. Jon Russell in The Next Web reports that Google has brought its cameras to Cambodia:
Cambodia becomes the 51st country on the planet to embrace Street View and, like many others, tourism is among the driving factors. Google says it is working closely with the Ministry of Tourism of Cambodia, the APSARA Authority (ANA), and the Phnom Penh Municipality to make the program happen.

Street View cars have started whizzing around capital city Phnom Penh capturing images and, as is common with Street View projects, they will expand to cover other cities, town and areas of interest over “the next few years.”
Although I would be surprised if Google's cameras make it to where I explored in Kampot's Fish Isle, it may soon be easier for people to track down some of what I saw in Phnom Penh, whether it is the iPhone jailbreaking stand, the restaurant which serves tasty spiders, or even the Facebook Ice Cream store. Russell reports that the famous Angkor Wat historical site is a target for Google's Street View cameras and that government officials see it as an opportunity for Cambodia to showcase itself to the world. In that sense, even if many Cambodians cannot afford to own the technology required to use Street View, they might benefit from it encouraging people to explore Cambodia.

little girl sitting on a jug on a cart being pushed by a young woman at a market in Phnom Penh
I don't have any photos of a Street View car in Phnom Penh, so instead here's someone who might like to ride one.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Google Reader's Final Recommendations

Previously I shared "one of the most remarkable online experiences I have ever had". The experience involved Google Reader's "Recommended items" feature. Since Google Reader will be shut down in a few days, I decided to take a final look at what it had to recommend to me.

It only offered two selections. The first was this: "Google Reader Is Shutting Down; Here Are the Best Alternatives".

I had to laugh. And for that, I'll give Google Reader one last +1.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Zigong, Google Maps, Baidu Map, Bing Maps, and Taiwan

I shared the previous posts about a friendly lunch and a friendly family not only because Zigong, Sichuan province, was on my mind but also because I don't yet have a post ready to follow up my earlier comments about Google Reader. I'm not sure when I will finish it, but in the meantime there are two earlier posts which now seem convenient to "refresh" since they mention both Zigong and Google: "Google Maps and Baidu Map in China" and "Maps in (and of) China: Baidu, Bing, and Google". They are both comparisons of map services in China and were written almost two years ago. They were inspired by some findings in my research on youth in China and some claims in Western media that Baidu Map's hand-drawn 3-D view was a sign of how it had surpassed Google Maps. After providing some evidence highlighting the limitations of Baidu's 3-D view, I compared the two services in other regards. In the second post, I added Bing Maps China into the mix as well. I also included some views of Zigong to show who correctly depicted the existence (or non-existence) of a river and a street.

I would not have the exact same stories to tell if I again wrote about these three services. But some points would remain the same, including the extreme lack of detail on Baidu Map for regions outside of China. And related to that, there is one thing I will add. In the 2nd post I pointed out that in both Bing Maps China and Google Maps China:
... there is a dashed line around the South China Sea and around Taiwan to presumably make it clear they are parts of China. To say the least, these are both areas where any such claims China may make are under significant dispute. The dashed lines do not appear in Google Maps US and Bing Maps US.
Not surprisingly, those dashed lines also appear in Baidu Map. Now, here's the interesting part. Baidu Map has no details for city-level views of Taiwan--a heavily populated region. Zoom in to the city level and Taipei is not there at all. In fact, it's indistinguishable from Washington D.C. Bing Maps China at least offers a few very broad details at the city level*, although they would be rather limited in their usefulness. Only Google Maps China has rich city-level maps for Taiwan. An explanation for Baidu's lack of detail in Taiwan can't simply rest on a distinction between mainland China and the other areas administered / claimed by China, because Baidu Map has detailed city-level maps for both Hong Kong and Macau.

At least for now, I won't have the chance to research this further, so I'll just say again... "interesting".

*Yes, the results can be better for non-China-based versions of Bing Maps. That's another story, and I touched on related issues in the 2nd maps post.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Still Weaving

In an earlier post, I wrote about what once provided me an incredible online experience, the "Recommend items" feature in Google Reader. Yesterday, in his post "Finale for now on Google's Self-Inflicted Trust Problem", James Fallows shared several opinions, including my own, about the potential fallout from Google shutting down its RSS reader service. I will soon follow up on what I wrote to Fallows, particularly about the claim that Google has hurt its reputation as the ultimate organizer of all the world's information.

I'm still working on that post, though, so in the meantime, here is a scene from a busy intersection today in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam:

motorbikes crisscrossing each other at a busy intersection in Ho Chi Minh City

More later.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Google Reader Once Knew Me So Well

I first became acquainted with Google Reader after starting this blog. My motivation was simple: I wanted to be able to check that my posts were properly appearing. And while I was there, I decided to give it a try for broader purposes. Gradually, I used it more and more for some of the websites I follow. Although I felt something was lost in stripping away everything but content, it offered several conveniences.

I'm not surprised by the recent news that Google Reader will soon be no more. There are plenty of people with speculation about the reasons, interviews with its creators, and reviews of possible replacements. For my part, I will share one of the most remarkable online experiences I have ever had.

A feature in Google Reader that I explored early on was "Recommended items". It allows you to scroll through individual posts or articles from a variety of sources as chosen by Google. At first it was full of what I considered "fun" stuff that would appeal to a broad audience. But for a brief period of time, the selected pieces suited a variety of my specific interests. And much of it was material that would likely only appeal to select audiences, including some pieces of humor. I was in awe. So much so that in an email I described the recommendations to a friend as "spooky". How did Google do this? It seemed impossible it could have been done solely based on what I had read in Google Reader--those items represented just a small sliver of my interests. Perhaps an extrapolation to other interests was possible, but it seemed more likely that my search history or email had been accessed to help drive the recommendations (something I was not aware would be done). Even then, I had to be impressed by the algorithm's apparent effectiveness.

Then a curious change occurred. The performance seemed to degrade over time. Never again did the recommended items list provide the almost perfectly tailored selection of material as it once had. In fact, it didn't even come close. New pieces about what most interested me rarely appeared, and soon I found the feed inundated with Lifehacker stories and food recipes. Additionally, it began regularly recommending pieces from a few sources that I already followed in Google Reader--even pieces that I had already read.

I can imagine reasons for the decline in good recommendations. For example, maybe me not indicating which pieces I liked caused the service to assume I wasn't enjoying them. Or maybe there were concerns about the information being used to drive the recommendations. Or maybe the algorithm was changed. I can't be sure. But whatever the reason, the recommended items feature became useless for me.

Now with Google Reader's planned demise, I am tempted to make an analogy about a friend who knows you well, develops dementia, and then dies. But perhaps that's too morbid, so I won't. Instead, I will begin to figure out what I will do without Google Reader around. Some other service will likely have the opportunity to learn more about me. In return, my main hope is it provides me a better opportunity to learn more about the world. And if I am amazed again, that's all the better.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Chinese Ministry Worried About Android's Dominance

Two years ago in the post "Google's Problems in China: Perceptions of a Chinese Internet User in Guiyang", I shared the thoughts of a young Chinese woman to provide another perspective on Google's claim that difficulties in using Gmail in China were due to a government blockage. She didn't believe Google's apparent problems with the Chinese government could be solely attributed to its stance on censorship, as many thought at the time, but that instead they were primarily the result of Google "taking the profits" of domestic companies.

Since then, one bright spot for Google in China has been the immense popularity of the Android mobile operating system. As reported by Reuters, the Chinese government has taken notice:
Google Inc has too much control over China's smartphone industry via its Android mobile operating system and has discriminated against some local firms, the technology ministry said in a white paper...

Analysts said the white paper, which lauded Chinese companies such as Baidu Inc, Alibaba Group and Huawei Technologies for creating their own systems, could be a signal to the industry that regulations against Android are on the horizon.
The article notes that Android has played a valuable role in the growth of China smartphone vendors. Due to this and Google's earlier challenges, it's easy to see irony in Google now being charged with discrimination in China.

But is the white paper a surprise? In a tweet about the article, Beijing-based investor/advisor/writer Bill Bishop wrote "Haha you knew this was coming."

I suspect the young woman in Guizhou would agree.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thinking Outside the Internet

Much of the research for guiding the design of improved and new technologies focuses on how people use existing technologies. However, knowing what people are doing and thinking when they are not using a technology can also be valuable. To provide a sense of how this is true, I will share two examples of research relevant to online services. The first is about a company familiar to many, and the second is about my own research.

In the MIT Technology Review Tom Simonite discussed his involvement in a recent user research project conducted by Google:
For three days last month, at eight randomly chosen times a day, my phone buzzed and Google asked me: “What did you want to know recently?” The answers I provided were part of an experiment involving me and about 150 other people. It was designed to help the world’s biggest search company understand how it can deliver information to users that they’d never have thought to search for online.

Billions of Google searches are made every day—for all kinds of things—but we still look elsewhere for certain types of information, and the company wants to know what those things are.

“Maybe [these users are] asking a friend, or they have to look up a manual to put together their Ikea furniture,” says Jon Wiley, lead user experience designer for Google search. Wiley helped lead the research exercise, known as the Daily Information Needs Study.

If Google is to achieve its stated mission to “organize the world's information and make it universally accessible,” says Wiley, it must find out about those hidden needs and learn how to serve them. And he says experience sampling—bugging people to share what they want to know right now, whether they took action on it or not—is the best way to do it. “Doing that on a mobile device is a relatively new technology, and it’s getting us better information that we really haven’t had in the past,” he says.
In the pursuit of improving its online services, Google is looking beyond its own invaluable data on online behavior and trying to understand its users' needs even when they are not using Google's online services. Read the article here for more thoughts about how this research might impact what Google offers.

Sometimes the "hidden needs" Jon Wiley mentioned can be first suggested in what is openly displayed on a wall. In a post about a dormitory room at Changsha's Central South University of Forestry and Technology, I wrote I would later "provide a small taste of how visiting these rooms can aid in the design of new technologies". One example can seen in the bulletin board I noticed in the back of the room.

bulletin board with notes in a college dormitory room in Changsha, China

The four female students who lived in the room used the board to post notes with their hopes, feelings, questions, and inspirational messages. One note expressed a student's desire to have enough money to treat her roommates to a meal at KFC as she had previously promised. Another expressed a student's sadness due to missing her boyfriend.

So many questions can now be asked, such as:
  • Why are they posting these particular messages on this bulletin board?
  • Did they also share these thoughts online? If not, why not?
  • Do other people post notes in a similar manner?
  • Are there other places where they share their thoughts?

Researching these and other questions has taken me to many more places in China than a single dorm room in Changsha. Although those places don't exist on the Internet, the stories they tell provide clues about what a variety of online services could offer and how they should be designed.

These examples of Google's and my own research provides hints of the value in conducting research that pushes beyond what may seem to be obvious boundaries. A common phrase people use to try to inspire innovation is "think outside the box". In the case of designing online services, it can be better to say "think outside the Internet".