A four-day outage of Google ’s Gmail service in mainland China appeared to have at least partly ended on Tuesday, but has raised questions about the breadth and scope of China’s notorious “Great Firewall”.
The episode ended as mysteriously as it began — users of Gmail via POP and Imap servers, who had been frustrated for days trying to send and receive email, suddenly saw their inboxes full again, though some were still reporting delays in receiving emails and others said that their service had not returned.
“Hurrah, Gmail is back, just in the nick of time!” said Wulitouing a user on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter.
The company declined to comment in detail. “We’ve checked and everything is working on our end,” said a spokesman in Asia.
Google’s transparency report , which shows a real-time, though slightly delayed, graph of the company’s traffic on the Chinese mainland, showed a moderate uptick from the four-day flatline starting on Tuesday morning. One expert who asked not to be named said he had noticed the increase but that it was too early to say definitively whether normal service to Gmail through third-party email services had resumed.
China’s so-called “Great Firewall” blocks access to many foreign internet services, including Twitter and Facebook , and new additions to the blacklist are a weekly or monthly occurrence. They are seldom if ever accompanied by any explanation.
In June, in the lead-up to the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, all of Google’s services including the flagship search function were suddenly blocked , and remain so, though some loopholes exist. Last summer, Line and Kakaotalk, two non-Chinese instant messaging apps, were blocked.
Google has had a turbulent history in China since it moved all its servers offshore in 2010 and relocated its Chinese search service to Hong Kong. However, despite the persistent disruption of its services, Gmail remains popular in China and usage has grown in the second half of the year since users discovered the loophole allowing access via third-party POP and IMAP clients.
That loophole may have been the target for the blockage, though there has been no explanation from the government for the disruption in service since December 27. Speaking at a press conference in Beijing on Monday, a Chinese government official was quoted as saying she knew nothing about the Gmail block.
Gmail is one of the few remaining encrypted communications channels widely used in China that does not go through local servers or have stated compliance with Chinese laws requiring surrender of personal user information to the government. To access foreign sites, mainland-based internet users routinely resort to virtual private networks, which charge fees for their service.
Google is widely used on the mainland particularly by many Chinese who routinely travel abroad or work for foreign companies. It was primarily the upper end of the socio-economic pyramid who were up in arms over the four-day blockage, with one Weibo user complaining that he missed the deadline to apply to Wharton business school in the US because the application materials had been sent to his inaccessible Gmail address.
If a high-level decision had been made to block the service, it appears to have even been moderately annoying to some in the top echelon of the Communist Party, as reflected in an editorial published on Tuesday on the website of the Global Times, a state-run newspaper.
“If the China side indeed blocked Gmail, the decision must have been prompted by newly emerged security reasons,” the editorial read. “If that is the case, Gmail users need to accept the reality of Gmail being suspended in China. But we hope it is not the case.”
While normal service was resuming on Tuesday, observers said that in all likelihood periodic blockages would continue.
“I don’t think the fact that its back right now means that it won’t be going away again,” said one expert.