Thursday, July 14, 2011

Slowly Vanishing: Shanghai's "Old" Xiaonanmen

Frequently the news in the US about Shanghai regards its latest and greatest -- high speed rail, new skyscrapers, etc.  However, there are other sides to Shanghai that are often overlooked, even by some of the people who live there.  One such side can be found in the Xiaonanmen area of Shanghai's centrally-located "Old Town".  Its landscape is changing, though, as sections of it feel the impact of the seemingly unstoppable march of "progress".  Whatever merits the changes may have, certainly much history and culture is disappearing.  But some of it remains, for now.

With that in mind, this past weekend I visited Xiaonanmen.  In some ways it reminded me of much of what I've recently seen in many other cities in China that have undergone far less change.  In others ways it seemed to capture a spirit that is special to Shanghai.

If you can bear through the bobbling of the the following video, you'll catch some of the sounds, sights, and energy in a local street market I walked through.  Every time I watch it I see different things I want to comment on.  For now, I'll just say that it touches on aspects of the daily lives for many in China that can feel far removed from Great Firewalls and high speed trains.

And here are some photos of more people and scenes in Xiaonanmen, each with many stories to tell:

The writing in red is a Chinese character to indicate the building will be demolished

Around the fabric market

Chinese squash can be rather large

Most of this block is demolished.  Hints of the possible future in the background.

Time for a beer

Cooking food

Trying to get the recently washed cat to pose for a photo

I've recently seen a few young kids with similar haircuts

Some small scale construction -- not so typical for this area.

The chef for my outdoor street-side dinner

Partially demolished home

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Maps in (and of) China: Baidu, Bing, and Google

In an earlier post I compared Google Maps and Baidu Map.  There were several key areas in which Google Maps was clearly superior even though Baidu Map has what some find to be a very visually appealing hand-drawn 3D view.  Combined with some of what I've found regarding the impressions of Google Maps held by Chinese youth I suggested that there could be a lot at play in Google Map's recent application for a license to continue operating in China.  If you didn't read the post taking a look at it here will provide more context for the following.

I've since received feedback from a few people indicating they like to use Microsoft's Bing Maps for some of their needs in China.  I'll take a look at how it stacks up to Google Maps and Baidu Map using the same metrics as before.

Here is a section of Zigong, Sichuan province, the same as used in the earlier post, in Bing Maps:

Zigong in Bing Maps

In comparison to either Google Maps or Baidu Map, Bing Maps shows very little detail for Zigong.  For example, the map shows none of the many roads in this area.

The level of detail in Bing Maps for Zigong is similar to many other places I've checked in China, including Shanghai.  While Beijing appears to have a bit more detail, including some streets, and Hong Kong is very detailed, they are not typical of other cities.  Needless to say, based on this it would seem that Bing Maps would be very limited in its usefulness in Mainland China.

However, there's an important piece of information I haven't mentioned.  The map above is from the version of Bing Maps for the US (I will now refer to it as Bing Maps US).  If you go to the version of Bing Maps for China at (I will now refer to it as Bing Maps China) you'll see a very different level of detail.  Here's a map of approximately the same area as above, but seen in Bing Maps China:

Zigong in Bing Maps China

The detail of streets at this level of zoom is obviously much better and compares to Google Maps and Baidu Map.  And unlike Baidu Map, it accurately represents the river.  In that respect Baidu Map has been outdone on its own turf by two non-Chinese companies.

To be clear, all of the examples from Google Maps in the earlier post were from the version of Google Maps for China (I will now refer to it as Google Maps China).  So, in the version for the US (I will now refer to it as Google Maps US) is the view of Zigong sparse in details similar to Bing Maps US?

Zigong in Google Maps US

Not at all.  The above view of Zigong in Google Maps US appears to be the same map as seen in Google Maps China except that English or pinyin (a way to write Chinese words using the Roman alphabet) is also included depending on which is the most appropriate (not always an easy decision, a topic for another day).

In fact, if you zoom in a bit more, you'll see that it even provides other important details in English such as those seen here:

Google Maps doesn't miss the McDonald's and KFC

Yes, indeed Zigong has a McDonald's and KFC just where the map shows.  I walked by them several times while I was in Zigong (though, there are some local specialties I'd highly recommend instead, a possible subject for a later post).  There are also several local business shown on the map as well.  I can't be sure of their accuracy but I can say that more exist than what is shown.  However, neither Baidu Map nor Bing Maps China shows a larger number of businesses in the area and neither offers any information in English.

Is everything there looking better for Google Maps US?  No.  A not-so-small street next to the KFC is missing from the map.  It's also missing from Bing Maps (the more I explore Baidu Bing Maps China and Google Maps the more it appears that at least in Zigong they are using very similar if not identical sources for street data). 

However, here is slightly overlapping section of Zigong as seen in Baidu Map:

Baidu Map captures a street missing in Bing Maps and Google Maps

The traffic light symbol at the intersection in the lower right is where KFC is located.  The road that extends diagonally up to the left is part of what is missing on Google Maps and Bing Maps China.  It seems to deserve being placed on a map and is not just some tiny side street.  I'm rather confident about that since I walked on it several months ago.  Fortunately, I also have a photo of it:

A street that most certainly exists

At another point on the road is this view:

A view of a section of Zigong

There are numerous apartment complexes and small businesses along the road including these:

More of the street in Zigong that certainly exists

As I mentioned in the earlier post, I've found mistakes or omissions in both Google Maps and Baidu Map in various locations in China, but I have not yet noticed any issues in Google Maps that equaled Baidu Map's mangling of Zigong's river.

Regardless, where I claimed Google Maps was most clearly superior to Baidu Map was in its coverage of regions outside of China.  While I shared what North America looked like in Baidu Map (reminder, mostly just grayness without any features) I didn't share a view from Google Maps because I assumed it would be obvious that it was much better.  That may not be the case anymore so to resolve any doubts here is North America as seen in Google Maps China (

North America in Google Maps China

After zooming in quite a bit more, here is a map of the city where I did my undergraduate & graduate studies long ago:

The Baltimore, Maryland area in Google Maps China

Many of the locations on the map are identified in both Chinese and English.  If people in China know of Dundalk by its Chinese name and want to find it that they can do so with Google Maps.  While some in Baltimore may scoff at the idea that people in China would ever need to do this, Dundalkers may feel otherwise.

If you zoom in more, the map is almost entirely in English.  However, my old alma mater does have its name in Chinese provided: 约翰霍普金斯大学 (I need to get that on a sweatshirt).  While Google Maps China doesn't provide the same degree of translation as found in the coverage of China by Google Maps US, its coverage of the US is clearly vastly superior to Baidu Map.

Since Bing Maps shows a very different view of China depending on whether one uses the version for the US or China, one could be particularly suspicious about how North America would appear in Bing Maps China.  Here is what it offers:

North America in Bing Maps China

That's as detailed as it gets.  Zooming in actually causes rivers such as the mighty Mississippi to disappear and for most locations the viewing area will be entirely filled with a light beige color.  There is no mention of the USA but there is a label for Washington, D.C.  It's a little more detailed than Baidu Map but not much more and still of rather limited use.  And Dundalkers you're not alone in being swiped from the face of the earth.  The rest of the world outside of China is equally lacking in detail.

There could be a variety of reasons as to why Bing Maps US and Bing Maps China are each lacking detailed coverage of areas that are offered in the other -- for example, the effort it would take to translate maps, licensing issues, etc.  I've noticed some curious patterns in the global coverage in Bing Maps US that add further intrigue to the issue (I may share these in a later post) so I'll refrain on making any bets for now.  If anyone from Microsoft would like to offer their thoughts I'd certainly be interested to hear them.  Whatever the reasons, the lack of coverage in both cases could lead to some disappointing moments for people using Bing Maps and could hurt its chances in being used by other online services (such as for global hotel reservations).

Since much of what I've shared pivots around what is inside and outside of China, I'll briefly touch on an important related issue for map services in China -- the borders of China.  Here is "China" in Bing Maps China and Google Maps China:

China in Baidu Bing Maps China

China in Google Maps China

Notice that in both 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.  The China-based versions seem to indicate how both Google and Microsoft are trying meet the Chinese government's regulations for map services.

As I mentioned in another post, I think companies such as Google and Microsoft can serve an important role in better connecting the Chinese people to the outside world, helping them to better understand it, and helping the world to better understand China.  I think it can be worthwhile even if it means a significantly higher level of censorship than typically practiced or, as in the cases above, adding in some dashed lines. 

As I mentioned in yet another post, Microsoft Bing's new partnership with Baidu may be of value in this regards (while also possibly putting Google Search in more peril of being blocked).  However, in its current form Bing Maps China won't greatly help in achieving any such lofty goals.

Of the map services in China I've reviewed, only Google Maps effectively offers people in China a detailed view of the US and people in the US a detailed view of China.  This isn't only good for helping people learn more about the world, but also good for Google's business.

Again, Google's strength in its map services in China may mean it will face some special challenges.  For now, both Google and Microsoft continue to wait to see if licenses will be granted for their map services in China.  How that plays out may shed some light on the differences between them. 

Regardless, based on what I've seen it's not hard to imagine what Baidu is hoping for.

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

Monday, July 11, 2011

Coming up soon...

Because I've been caught caught up with some things and wrote a couple of posts that aren't quite ready yet, it's been quiet here the past couple of days.

So, here's a preview of what I think I'll be posting about very soon:
  • A follow-up to my piece "Google Maps and Baidu Map in China".  In the earlier post I shared some interesting patterns I noticed in my research on Chinese youth, compared Google's and Baidu's map services, and commented on the implications this may all have on Google Maps' ability to operate in China (according to Bloomberg here the Chinese government is still reviewing Google Maps' application for an important license).  In the next post on this topic I will share some interesting things I found after reviewing the map services offered by another prominent company.  For now, I'll just say it's a different story from both Baidu Map and Google Maps -- in ways that may surprise you.  The earlier post provides some key context for the next one, if you missed it you can find it here.
  • An example highlighting how being "inside" or "outside" a culture can impact certain types of research.
  • Another post providing more of a peek into how I conduct research in China.
  • Photos highlighting a side of Shanghai very different from the flashy buildings and high speed railroad stations that more commonly make the news.
  • A post on food or beer.  Or maybe both.
  • Some other things, but not totally convinced to do them yet so...
More soon.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Access to Google+ in China

[UPDATE: Information below is from 2011. More recent post (January 2012) on access to websites in China here: Not Black & White: Access in China to Amazon, Facebook, Google+, Windows Live, Yahoo! and More]

Lately, I've been keeping track of the availability of Google+ in China.

There's been a bit of interest on the topic.  To make life simpler I will try something new and only place future updates in the space below.  I will not update earlier posts.  I will only write new posts on this topic if there is significant news (for example, complete unblocking or blocking of Google+ for an extended period of time) or I have new musings.  I will link to any such posts from here as well.

I will note updates to this post publicly.  Feel free to circle, follow, share, or whatever it is you like to call it.
          On Google+ at
          On Twitter at

Latest Google+ status updates (China Time):
  • August 3, 10 p.m. -- Google+ DNS blocked.  Google Maps, Groups, Photos, Calendar OK.  Gmail took a very long time to load but ultimately worked.   Google News is sometimes blocked, sometimes not (peculiar).  Google Documents DNS blocked.  Picasa completely blocked.
  • July 18, 4:30 p.m. -- Google+ is DNS blocked and the block is immediate.  I also noticed that the problems with some items from seem to be browser specific.  Again, the problem doesn't appear to be caused by China's Great Firewall.
  • July 13, 9 p.m. -- Google+ is DNS blocked.  This time the block was immediate.  I've also noted that some items from do not successfully load even with the VPN turned on.  So, this specific issue doesn't appear to be caused by China's Great Firewall.  One guess is that it is due to the connection not being fast enough (but I really don't know).
  • July 12, 6 p.m. -- Google+ is DNS blocked.  This time, the block wasn't immediate but instead there was an attempt to connect that lasted over 6 minutes before a failure was indicated.  Also, while switching to a non-Chinese DNS server allows me to access Google+ there are typically a few items for each page that won't load.  For example, in my most recent experience several items from did not successfully load.
  • July 11, 2 a.m. -- Google + is DNS blocked.  First time trying Gmail took over 1 min for sign-in page to load.  2nd time (cookies cleared again) no problem.
  • July 9, 6 a.m. -- Google+ is DNS blocked.  Also tested Facebook -- completely blocked.
  • July 7, 11:30 p.m. -- Google+ is DNS blocked.
  • July 7, 6:45 p.m. -- Google+ is DNS blocked.
  • July 7, 3-4 p.m. -- Google+ is once again DNS blocked when using a local DNS server in Shanghai, China.  This time I tested on multiple browsers in two locations in Shanghai that appeared to use different local DNS servers.  The results were the same for all combinations. Again, switching to a non-Chinese DNS server resolves the problem.
  • July 6, 2 a.m. -- Google+ remains DNS blocked.
Note: For more about "DNS blocking" see my first post on the issue here: "Google+ Blocked in China".

Disclaimer:  I will try to keep an eye on things but I promise no regularity to the updates, especially if the situation seems to stabilize.  Also, I would love to check multiple other sites as well but currently it would be too time consuming.  For a variety of reasons, Google+ seems to be the most interesting site at the moment to keep a close eye on.  Normally when I am online, I use a VPN so I don't have to worry about any sites being blocked by China's Great Firewall.  And yes, my VPN has been working fine lately, but that's another story.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Games Continue, Google+ Accessible From China

[UPDATE: Information below is from 2011. More recent post (January 2012) on access to Google+ and other websites in China can be found here: Not Black & White: Access in China to Amazon, Facebook, Google+, Windows Live, Yahoo! and More.

2 previous updates are at end of this post.]

At around 11:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 6, I was able to access Google+ from Shanghai, China while using a local DNS server.  This is definitely a change from my most recent previous attempts when I could not connect (see here).  So, as of now Google+ is not blocked in China.

I should note that the first time I tried tonight I was not able to connect at all.  I then tested some of Google's other services and noticed some peculiar issues while trying to get to the US based Google Search site.  In short, I was being directed to different parts of Google after entering, even after clearing the cookies in the Internet browser.  I'll share more on that later if it continues as I'm not sure what to make of it.

Regardless, after a period of time I was able to access Google+, even after clearing cookies.  I repeated this several times on different browsers without problem.

Was the earlier "block" just technical difficulties?  Is China's Great Firewall playing games?  Did Google complain to China and somehow convince them to "resolve" the DNS issue (see here for more links to learn more about DNS)?

I don't know.  I'll explore more later.

Added note: The Shanghaiist here earlier on Wednesday also noted that Google+ was blocked in China.  At that time...

UPDATE: Between 3-4pm on July 7, Google+ is once again "DNS-blocked" using a local DNS server in Shanghai, China.  I tested on multiple browsers in two different locations with the same results.  Again, switching to a non-Chinese DNS server resolves the problem.

UPDATE 2:  Any future updates will be placed here:  "Access to Google+ in China".

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Baidu, Microsoft Deal Could Significantly Impact Google in China

There is recent news that Baidu and Bing have made a deal that could have a lot of ramifications for Internet search services in China.  Bloomberg reports:
"The agreement will let Baidu users see English search results generated by the U.S. company’s Bing technology to users in China, Viola Wang, a spokeswoman at Microsoft’s MSN venture in China, said by phone today. A service jointly offered by the companies will start this year, Baidu said in an e-mailed statement today."
This could be especially bad news for Google Search in China for two reasons in particular.

1.  Now there is competition for Google Search in its perceived strength from a Chinese company

As I point out here in a post about a Chinese person's thoughts about Google's challenges in China, it is not uncommon for some in China to use both Baidu and Google.  One common reason for this behavior is the perception that Baidu is better for seeking material that's in Chinese and Google is better for seeking material that's in English or outside of China.

However, if Baidu is able to provide (and market) a significantly improved service for non-Chinese searches, people who use Baidu for Chinese searches may be less likely to also use Google Search.  Even if Google Search is perceived as better than what Baidu can offer with Bing, the difference may no longer be great enough to motivate people to switch between search services depending on their needs.

2.  Increased likelihood of Google Search being fully blocked in China

Google Search currently redirects searches in China to its servers in Hong Kong so that it does not have to self-censor (as it used to before the service was redirected) per the rules of the Chinese government for China-based search services.  In short, the Chinese government now censors the service itself by blocking "bad" search terms and pages with "bad" links without entirely blocking Google Search.  Google Search may have avoided YouTube's fate of being entirely blocked at least in part because the Chinese government may recognize that a significant number of people in China, both in the business and academic worlds, have a critical need for what Google Search can offer.  Like the case I made here with Google Maps, no Chinese company's service can take its place.

However, now the Chinese government may believe that Baidu, through its partnership with Bing, will be able to meet China's non-local search needs.  While some in China would likely complain if Google Search were to be entirely blocked, the Chinese government may simply tell them that Baidu is able to meet their needs and that Google Search will be welcomed back if it agrees to self-censor as the Chinese government wants.

Not only would fully blocking Google Search mean that China's Great Firewall need not worry about selectively blocking Google Search (presumably more complex to carry out than a complete block) but it would likely cause increased online traffic (business) to be directed towards Baidu, a Chinese company.  These are both things the Chinese government likely wants.

As I mentioned here earlier, I think it can be for the net good for the Chinese people to be better connected to the outside world, even when sacrifices for censorship need to be made.  From that perspective, I think the news about the deal between Microsoft and Baidu is positive.  People in China will be more exposed to world-class options for finding and discovering material outside of China.  However, if it comes at the cost of Google Search not being available in China, then I'm not sure the Chinese people will have made any significant gains in that respect.

We'll just have to see what happens.

Google+ Now DNS Blocked in China

[UPDATE: Information below is from 2011. More recent post (January 2012) on access to Google+ and other websites in China can be found here: Not Black & White: Access in China to Amazon, Facebook, Google+, Windows Live, Yahoo! and More.

4 previous updates are at end of this post.]

As of about 9:30pm, Tuesday, July 5 in Shanghai, China my experience accessing Google+ has changed.

At the moment, when I try to access Google+ using a local DNS server I am not able to connect.  Once, I was able to get to the login page, however I was not able to get any further.  Other times, I couldn't even get to the home page at  I waited for over a minutes on several occasions with no success.  Normally, the browser would indicate it could not connect and stopped showing any activity.

I was, however, able to access my Gmail account at the time.

When I switched to a non-local DNS server I was then able to access Google+.

So, at the moment it appears that Google+ is DNS blocked, at least for the local DNS server I tested.  As I mentioned before, this is one of the easier blocking methods to get around.  However, many in China may not be aware that their inability to connect to Google+ could be resolved by changing their DNS server (and some won't realize there is any issue if they are already using a functioning non-Chinese DNS server).

For more information on my most recent previous experience accessing Google+ from China see here - at that time I could access Google+ though a local DNS server but it was much slower than using a non-local DNS server.  For my first experience and more information about blocking through DNS see here.

I'll check again in a few hours and provide another update

UPDATE 1: As of 2am, Wednesday, July 6 the situation remains as above.  I cannot access Google+ using a local DNS server but can using a non-Chinese one.

UPDATE 2:  Around 11:30pm on July 6, I was able to access Google+ while using a local DNS server.  More here.

Added note: The Shanghaiist here earlier on Wednesday also noted that Google+ was blocked in China.  At that time...

UPDATE 3: Between 3-4pm on July 7, Google+ is once again "DNS-blocked" using a local DNS server in Shanghai, China.  I tested on multiple browsers in two different locations with the same results.  Again, switching to a non-Chinese DNS server resolves the problem.

UPDATE 4:  Any future updates will be placed here:  "Access to Google+ in China".

More Bridge Adventures

In an earlier pair of posts I presented a variety of photos regarding the sign seen here:

sign with slash through a person on a bike with an arrow below the bike pointing to the left

placed at the entrance to a ramp for crossing this bridge in Chengdu, Sichuan province:

bridge crossing a road

The first post more fully describing the scene is here.  The second post with readers' very insightful & creative thoughts on the meaning of the sign, some additional clues, and the final "answer" is here.

So as not to give away the answer to the meaning of the sign to those who haven't yet read the posts, I'll simply say that many people, either in China or outside, were not able to figure out the meaning of the sign on their first try and that the message was being ignored, misunderstood, or not noticed by a number of people on the bridge itself.  A Chinese reader who now lives in the US had her own views on the situation:
"who, of chinese origin, would look at signs! That's where u americans get lost! u actually read them!!!

And take it from an American Chinese (sort of), this is the honest truth. The Chinese don't care about traffic rules or any other kind of rules, as much as the Americans. Just look at the way they cross the street, you think they haven't seen the traffic lights?"
I'll agree with the reader that pedestrians in China are typically more "free" in how they cross roads.  But why this is the case and a discussion of other differences in "road behavior" is a topic I'll save for another day, or year.  On the side, I've noticed some significant regional differences within both the US and China so I think comparing the entire countries can obscure some potentially interesting issues.

I also mentioned in the earlier post that the sign touches on the the design challenge of when it may be best to use a "do" or "do not" sign to express a message.  Since the ramps were apparently designed for a very specific use, a "do" sign may have been more effective.

Regardless, I saw no evidence that people would interpret the above sign as implying driving a car across the bridge is permissible.  There weren't any "no cars" signs but it may have been felt that such a sign was not needed since it would already be obvious to drivers.

However, someone did drive their car across a similar bridge in Kunming, Yunnan province.  This feat is all the more spectacular since there was no dedicated ramp and they drove up and down stairs clearly intended for pedestrians.   The video is a bit fuzzy, but from what I can tell these are a common design of stairs that have narrow and steep ramps on either side to wheel up or down bikes.  Most bridges I've seen in China are like this one and don't have separate ramps and stairs like the bridges I saw in Chengdu.  Here's the video of the determined driver:

According to a post on the Wall Street Journal's "China Realtime Report" here, the driver had been stuck in traffic and used the bridge to make a U-turn.  I've experienced my fair share of seemingly impossible-to-resolve traffic jams in China.  Once in Shenzhen I got out of the taxi to walk the rest of the way.  Another time in Xian the taxi driver made use of a bike path to turn around and find another route.  And once outside of Shijiazhuang a bus driver decided to get particularly creative and took a route that turned an easy two hour trip into a five hour adventure with moments I thought the bus was going to fall on its side (the roads were clearly not made for large buses).

So, I can somewhat empathize with the presumably frustrated driver although I don't condone his action.  Though, to be fair I can't see what, if any, signs were posted.  Of course, according to the reader above that wouldn't have mattered.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Google+ Now Not Blocked in China but Slowed Due to DNS

[UPDATE: Information below is from 2011. More recent post (January 2012) on access to Google+ and other websites in China can be found here: Not Black & White: Access in China to Amazon, Facebook, Google+, Windows Live, Yahoo! and More.

5 previous updates are at end of this post.]

There's been a lot swirling about Google+ in China and whether it is blocked.  Recently, some reports have stated that Google+ is not in fact blocked in China.  For example, see Steven Millward's post on Penn Olson here, Jessica Colwell's piece on Shanghaiist here, and a commentary on them and other reports by Edmund Downie on Foreign Policy's blog here.

However, none of the pieces touched on what I think is a key aspect -- the impact of simply changing the DNS server.  This is something anyone in China with access to the Internet/Network settings on their device can easily do (although many don't know about it).   I already discussed the issue of DNS in my previous post here.  I'll now provide a quick recap and update.

Around 5am (China Time) Friday, July 1:

As reported before (again, here), my experience in Shanghai was that Google+ was indeed blocked.  It is possible if I had waited much longer eventually I would have gotten through as others later reported.  It is possible the situation was different when I did my testing early in the morning.  All I can say is that I waited a minute or so without success.

However, if I switched from using the local default DNS server to which I was connected to one outside of China (that I've found reliable in the past) then the Google+ entry pages were readily and quickly available.  To be clear, this was without using a VPN or applying any other "tricks" to get through China's Great Firewall.  I only changed my DNS settings.   I was not able to check "inside" Google+ since I didn't have an invite at the time.

8:30pm Friday, July 1:

Earlier today I received an invite.  Even using a local DNS server I was able to log in and use Google+.  However, as others have reported pages could take an extended amount of time to load (maybe 5-10 seconds) or I needed to play around (click on several different links first) for them to open.  Not an entirely smooth experience, but not completely blocked either.

Again, if I switched to to a non local DNS server the experience markedly improved and there were no apparent issues.   I dare say it felt "normal".

Quick Thoughts:

During the morning's experience I wondered if my inability to access Google+ through a local DNS server was simply an issue of DNS propagation.  In short, it takes time for information about how to connect to a new website address to spread to networks around the world.  Maybe it was taking longer for it to reach China (or they had to first "review" it).  However, now the Google+ address has clearly been propagated, otherwise there would be no access to the service using a local DNS.

Now the problem is clearly an issue of slow access, not complete blocking.  Since switching to a non-local DNS server markedly improves the speed, the problem seems to be related to China's DNS servers (or at least the ones I and some others have tried).  Importantly, given the pattern of results it would seem that Google can't be blamed for the current slow access in China (as some in China may try to do).

As James Fallows has pointed out before (see here), there are many ways that China's Great Firewall can go about its business.  What appears to be happening to Google+ is the result of one of the more tame and easily managed methods the Great Firewall can use to interfere with websites.

It may be a case of the Chinese government wanting to dissuade users from adopting Google+ but not wanting to fully block it (at least not yet).  They also may be simply waiting for some "bad" material to appear on it before taking stronger steps.

We'll see.

Added note: The slowness of Google+ in China may be related to a more general, and curious, slowing of foreign sites that has been noted by some (including me at times in the past).  I did not make a direct comparison of Google+ vs other foreign sites and how they respond to changes in the DNS server so I am not sure.  Regardless of whether the slowing is specific to Google or not, it still appears to be a DNS issue.

UPDATE:  Around 9:30 pm on July 5, I was not able to access Google+ through a local DNS server.  See here for more:

UPDATE 2:  Around 2am on July 6, the situation remains the same.  I was not able to access Google+ through a local DNS server.  However, as before, after switching to a non-Chinese DNS server I could access Google+.

UPDATE 3:  Around 11:30pm on July 6, I was able to access Google+ while using a local DNS server.  More here.

Added note: The Shanghaiist here earlier on Wednesday also noted that Google+ was blocked in China.  At that time...

UPDATE 4: Between 3-4pm on July 7, Google+ is once again "DNS-blocked" using a local DNS server in Shanghai, China.  I tested on multiple browsers in two different locations with the same results.  Again, switching to a non-Chinese DNS server resolves the problem.

UPDATE 5:  Any future updates will be placed here:  "Access to Google+ in China".

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Different Obstacles in China for Google and Facebook

In my post "Facebook in China: A Chance to Connect and Understand" I highlighted that Facebook stands apart from Chinese social-networking sites in its ability to meet a key need & desire for many in China: connecting with the world.  I felt that Facebook could serve a positive role, both for China and the world, even given the fact that it would likely have to censor material on its site as required by the Chinese government.

So this clearly means that I think Google Search made a mistake in not keeping a censored version of its service in China, right?

Not necessarily.

On the issue of needing to self-censor Facebook and Google Search are different.

Last year, Google decided to redirect its search service in Mainland China to its servers in Hong Kong so that it would no longer be required to censor per the rules of the Chinese government (although it does presumably now "censor" according to the far less strict requirements in Hong Kong).  At that point China essentially took over the active duties of censoring the site.  China can block individual search requests or block individual pages of results depending on the content.  The experience one can having using Google Search in China can vary depending on the Great Firewall's apparent mood of the day, but essentially a user in China can go to Google Search, enter a "bad" search term, be "blocked", return to the search page (sometimes there may be a delay before the page is accessible), and then do something else.

In short, it is possible for China's Great Firewall to block "bad" things on Google Search without entirely stopping someone from using it.

However, if Facebook takes a stand to not censor material according to the rules of the Chinese government then there's no way for them to operate in a similar fashion.  Imagine if China reviews every incoming page from Facebook and only blocks pages that include "bad" material.  What if the news feed on a person's homepage includes a "bad" link that has been posted by a friend? China would block the page and that's it.  The person can't use Facebook at all.

As Facebook is currently designed there is likely now no way for it to be practically available in China unless Facebook itself censors material.  However, there may be hope that any censorship requirements for Facebook may not be as draconian as some may imagine.  A recent article by Loretta Chao in the Wall Street Journal that provides an overview of the competition between various Chinese social-networking sites (see here) touches on this:
"Chinese websites, including Sina, are required to police themselves to keep their government-issued operational licenses, a costly task involving dozens of employees who monitor the sites around the clock.

Although Sina is known for its heated discussions, at times over controversial issues such as local government corruption and soaring property prices, most talk on the site isn't political. When sensitive topics arise, the company can be creative in limiting conversation without cutting it off altogether—for example, by blocking searches of sensitive keywords but not stopping people from publishing them on their own microblogs."
Facebook may be able to allow similar "freedoms".  Although, it should be noted that as a foreign company they may be held to stricter standards than local companies for a variety of reasons.  As I've noted before regarding Google (see here), life is not always "fair" in China.

The only way for Facebook to take Google Search's route of not censoring themselves would be for Facebook to massively redesign its service.  Since China would still attempt to censor parts of the site, Facebook would have to ask itself whether it would be worth it.  For Google Search it was more simple.  Not censoring only meant less, not more, work for them since no fundamental changes to the design of the service were required (whether taking this route has led to more "interference" for Google's services in China is another issue).

This is why holding Google Search and Facebook to different expectations for self-censorship in China can be reasonable.  If China completely blocked Google Search then I would hope it would self-censor for reasons similar to those I've outlined for Facebook.  [Added note: Yes, I realize Google tried this once before and decided that it wasn't working for them.  Whether they should try again (if it's the only option) partly depends on the exact issues that previously caused them to stop self-censoring per China's rules.  My point is simply that a censored Google would be better for people in China than no Google.  Whether it is practical for Google to do so (China may not apply censorship rules consistently or fairly to Google) is another issue.]

The impact of the different situations faced by Google Search and Facebook relates to another issue Google is now facing: maintaining the operation of Google Maps in China.  As I previously discussed in my comparison of Google Maps and Baidu Map (see here), I think there are signs that Google Maps is strongly positioned in China and this may be why they're reportedly willing to form a joint venture with a Chinese company to meet new regulations.  In this case, there is presumably no option to offer Google Maps in China by redirecting traffic to servers in Hong Kong -- China would simply block the entire site.

There is also much talk about Google's new offerings in Google+.  See here for an in-depth overview by Steven Levy on and here for a piece by Ben Parr on Mashable.  Earlier today, I noted (see here) that at the time the entry portal to the service appeared to be blocked in China due to DNS issues that could be easily "fixed".  Later, the Shanghaiist reported (see here) that the service could be accessed in China but was very slow.  Regardless, Google+ will likely face it's own particular challenges if it wants to operate in China.

I feel that Facebook, Google, and other companies who can help Chinese people connect with the world all should do their best to have a presence in China.  They can all offer something special for people in China, each in their own way.  Depending on their services they may have to make different sacrifices to do so, but in many cases they will be worth it for the companies, their customers, and their users.

Google+ Blocked in China

[UPDATE: Information below is from 2011. More recent post (January 2012) on access to Google+ and other websites in China can be found here: Not Black & White: Access in China to Amazon, Facebook, Google+, Windows Live, Yahoo! and More.

7 previous updates are at end of this post.]

TechCrunch is reporting that the new service Google+ is already blocked in China:
"That didn’t take long. Tons of people haven’t even gained access to the Google+ field trial yet, but that hasn’t stopped Chinese authorities from blocking Google’s brand new social networking project, reports Ren Media.

Indeed, Just Ping and the website both confirm that is not accessible from mainland China."
I just checked from Shanghai, China and it is indeed blocked.  But there are many ways that Internet sites can be blocked in China and this appears to be a case of DNS (Domain Name System) tampering.  This is one of the easiest forms of blocking to get around.  If you're not familiar with China's Great Firewall see here and if your not familiar with DNS see here.  For more details on DNS tampering in China, sometimes referred to as the "Great DNS Wall of China", see here and this paper by a group at NYU here.

As long I wasn't using a local DNS server (which is easy to switch) I was able to go to Google+ and explore it with not apparent problems.

Here is the Google+ home page as seen in China using a "good" DNS server:

Here is the login page:

Here I'm being told it's just a field trial but I can leave an email address for them to contact me later:

And here is where I can provide my contact information:

Unfortunately, I can't test whether the actual service is similarly blocked only through DNS tampering since I don't have an invite.

Does this get me one?

UPDATE: I've received an invite.  I'll do another post if I notice anything curious specific to access in China.

UPDATE 2:  Google+ now not blocked and I have full access.  There are still DNS issues, though.  See here for details on my latest experience: 

UPDATE 3:  Around 9:30 pm on July 5, I was not able to access Google+ through a local DNS server.  See here for more:

UPDATE 4:  Around 2am on July 6, the situation remains the same.  I was not able to access Google+ through a local DNS server.  However, as before, after switching to a non-Chinese DNS server I could access Google+.

UPDATE 5:  Around 11:30pm on July 6, I was able to access Google+ while using a local DNS server.  More here.

Added note: The Shanghaiist here earlier on Wednesday also noted that Google+ was blocked in China.  At that time...

UPDATE 6: Between 3-4pm on July 7, Google+ is once again "DNS-blocked" using a local DNS server in Shanghai, China.  I tested on multiple browsers in two different locations with the same results.  Again, switching to a non-Chinese DNS server resolves the problem.

UPDATE 7:  Any future updates will be placed here:  "Access to Google+ in China".

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

China's Great Firewall Helping Chinese Companies Get American Business

Warner Bros. Entertainment's joint venture in China has reportedly made a deal with Youku, sometimes referred to as the "YouTube of China".  Reuters reports:
"Under a three-year agreement with Warner Bros, Youku will add between 400 to 450 Warner Bros movies to its Youku Premium library.

"People are increasingly willing to pay for high quality content, and we take the growth of Youku Premium as a sign that the market is improving for paid services," Dele Liu, Youku's chief financial officer, said in a statement."
Why would Warner Bros. make a deal with Youku instead of say... YouTube?  Well, one reason probably of high importance is that YouTube is currently blocked in China.  Pretty simple.

So, from an American perspective is the news about Warner Bros. new deal good because an American company can further profit in China?  Is it good because possibly more content from the US will be seen in China?

Or is it bad because Warner Bros. is presumably helping the business of a Chinese company that heavily censors its material?

Will Warner Bros. receive as much backlash for this deal as YouTube would if it were to announce that it planned to heavily censor in China so that it could conduct business there?

What's the difference?

Just something to ponder.

Note: I can't be positive that YouTube agreeing to censor would lead to it being available in China and raise the possibility for the sake of making a point.

Update:  Regarding the statement "Warner Bros. is presumably helping the business of a Chinese company" there is an interesting update in the Reuters article:
"Youku shares up 15 pct on NYSE, among top gainers"