Google has fired a new salvo in a censorship battle with Beijing by adding a feature that suggests alternatives for search terms that might result in blocked results.
Google’s announcement on Thursday did not mention Beijing’s extensive Internet controls. However, it comes after filters were tightened so severely in recent weeks that searches fail for some restaurants, universities or tourist information. Authorities were aiming to stamp out talk about an embarrassing scandal over the fall of a rising Chinese Communist Party star.
Google Inc closed its China-based search engine in 2010 to avoid cooperating with government censorship. Mainland users can see its Chinese-language site in Hong Kong, but the connection breaks if they search for sensitive terms.
The new feature will alert users in China if they type in a search term that “may temporarily break your connection to Google” and suggest alternative terms, Google said in a blog post signed by a senior vice president, Alan Eustace.
“By prompting people to revise their queries, we hope to reduce these disruptions and improve our user experience from mainland China,” Eustace wrote.
Google cited as an example the Chinese character “jiang,” or river, without mentioning that it is also the surname of former President Jiang Zemin (江澤民), the possible reason the government blocks search results. It says the site will recommend that users in China write their search terms without that character.
A Google spokesman in Tokyo, Taj Meadows, declined to comment on reasons for the feature or whether the company was concerned about Chinese government retaliation.
Google was allowed to keep a network of advertising sales offices in China that might be vulnerable if the Chinese government tries to punish the company.
Google had 16.6 percent of China’s search market in the first quarter based on use of its global and Hong Kong sites, according to Analysys International, a Beijing research firm. It was in second place behind local rival Baidu Inc (百度), which has 78.5 percent, but ahead of other Chinese competitors.
The latest tightening of controls was prompted by a flurry of rumors about the downfall of Bo Xilai (薄熙來), a prominent politician who was party secretary of Chongqing.
In addition to Bo’s name, searches for a wide array of terms are blocked, including Chongqing and Yangtze River, which flows past the city. That means searches for universities, hotels, restaurants or other businesses that use those names are also blocked.
China’s two most popular microblog services stopped allowing new postings for three days in early April to erase what they said were illegal or harmful postings.
Google’s engineers reviewed the 350,000 most popular search queries in China in an effort to find “disruptive queries,” the company said.
Google gave no indication when development of the latest feature started, but said it received reports of unreliable searches “over the past couple of years.”