BEIJING -- A technical glitch originating with Google Inc. -- not Chinese government censorship -- was behind an outage of the search engine in mainland China on Tuesday.
But the public outcry over the interruption underscored the heightened sensitivity of Chinese Internet users who anticipate that Beijing regulators will retaliate against Google in response to the firm's recent defiant public stand against censorship in China.
China's powerful filtering system dubbed "the great firewall" has blocked other American sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube that ran afoul of government watchdogs.
Last week Google shut down its Chinese language search engine and redirected users to an uncensored version in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China that still functions as an independent state. The retreat ended Google's four-year experiment operating a Chinese language search engine under Beijing's restrictive censorship rules. Soon after Google's announcement, the state-run Xinhua news agency quoted an unnamed official at the State Council Information Office calling the decision "totally wrong."
In a separate incident Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that the Yahoo e-mail accounts belonging to foreign journalists appeared to have been hacked, drawing renewed attention to concerns over Internet security in China that have escalated tensions between the United States and China.
Google blamed Tuesday's glitch on a string of text "gs -- rfai" that began appearing in Web addresses in the last 24 hours. Because of the characters "rfa," Chinese filtering systems associated the searches with Radio Free Asia, which is inaccessible in China, the Internet search giant said.
"We are currently looking at how to resolve this issue," a spokesman said.
Google did not say how the string of text was created. Chinese Internet users speculated Tuesday that the addition of the characters triggered the error messages.
The glitch caused a stir in mainland China, where the government's filtering system has blocked users from seeing sensitive results on the Hong Kong search engine. Searches for seemingly innocuous terms such as "Beijing" and "China" returned error messages. Twitter users across the country reported outages of the search engine starting around 5 p.m. On Sunday, Google reported that some of its mobile features were partly blocked.
Google's future in China is uncertain. Google, which operated the No. 2 search engine behind Chinese giant Baidu Inc., said it planned to maintain other business operations in China, including a sales team and a research and development facility. Analysts have predicted that the Chinese government will make remaining in China difficult.
UCLA business professor Christopher Tang blamed Google's handling of the dispute. "Once Google opened fire in a public way, it made it very difficult for either side to back down," Tang said.
Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the UC Berkeley and founder of the China Digital Times, said the clash with Google was inevitable: the technology powerhouse wants information to flow freely, while the rising economic superpower wants to control what its citizens can view online. He and other observers predict China will eventually block access to Google's search engine.
"The fact that a significant number of Internet users are using Google products, its search engine, e-mail, documents, is really in conflict with the Chinese government's strategy to control the Internet," Qiang said. "Now that Google is publicly defying Chinese censorship in front of the whole world, the government will punish it."
Qiang expects resentment to grow among educated users who depend on Google services for their studies, research and daily lives. But it's unlikely that Chinese netizens will challenge censorship policies in the near future, said Cynthia Wong, an attorney with the Center for Democracy & Technology.
"Hopefully over time it will lead to calls for change domestically, but the short-term impact of Google pulling out of the China market will not be much," Wong said.
(c) 2010, Los Angeles Times.
Visit the Los Angeles Times on the Internet at http://www.latimes.com/
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.