Wednesday, December 31, 2014

China blocks Gmail, breaks WTO rules

Gmail became almost completely inaccessible within China over Christmas with blocks apparently being placed on mobile apps in addition to the blocks that were already in place on the web version of Google's email service. 

The blocking of foreign Internet services is nothing new in China which has often clamped down on services it deems to be a threat to its national security or a bad influence on society. But the downing of the world's most popular email service has created a stir and raised concerns in many quarters.

Previous blocks

YouTube was blocked in early 2009 after a video purporting to show Chinese police beating Tibetan monks was posted on the video-hosting website. Twitter was blocked later in the same year and other social networks including Facebook have also been closed off to Chinese Internet users.

Google has had a particularly hard time with not only its video-hosting website being blocked but also many of its other products falling foul of the censors. Blogger has been inaccessible for nearly six years while Google Maps, Google Drive [formerly Docs] and Google Search have been hit intermittently over the past 5 years.

The problems intensified in 2010 when Google moved its search engine to Hong Kong after a spat with Chinese authorities concerning censorship and an attempted hack on its systems.

In the past year almost all of Google's services have become inaccessible, although Gmail has mostly been left alone. However in the past few months web users have found Gmail difficult to access. Those using apps on smartphones and tablets seemed unaffected.

Christmas shutdown

But all that changed over the festive period when virtually all access to Gmail became impossible.

Google's Transparency Report, which shows real-time traffic to Google services, displayed a sharp dropoff in traffic to Gmail from China on Friday 26th December. And according to Google, there were no problems in its system. "We've checked and there's nothing wrong on our end," a Singapore-based spokesman for Google said in an email [Guardian].


Meanwhile China's Foreign Ministry denied any involvement. Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she did not know anything about Gmail being blocked, adding the government was committed to providing a good business environment for foreign investors.

"China has consistently had a welcoming and supportive attitude towards foreign investors doing legitimate business here," she said. "We will, as always, provide an open, transparent and good environment for foreign companies in China." [Reuters]

In a wordy OpEd published in the state run Global Times, there was a broad sense of denial that China was involved in blocking Gmail whilst criticising Western media for pointing a finger at Chinese authorities. Such blame was far too simplistic, the Global Times insisted.

The article insinuated that Google itself might be responsible for the disruption. However, whilst not admitting to China blocking the service, the Global Times said that should the service be censored then "users need to accept the reality of Gmail being suspended in China". [Global Times]

Muscle flexing

There are fears that China is becoming more aggressive as its economy grows. Due to its growing importance in the world economy, few countries or companies are willing to openly criticise China.

"I think the government is just trying to further eliminate Google's presence in China and even weaken its market overseas," said a member of, a China-based freedom of speech advocacy group. "Imagine if Gmail users might not get through to Chinese clients. Many people outside China might be forced to switch away from Gmail."

Breaking WTO rules

Such a prospect raises many concerns. The so-called Great Firewall now blocks more than 18,000 websites operated across the planet, and is patrolled by tens of thousands of cyber-sentries, according to scholars in the United States and Europe who closely track Beijing's Internet security structures [The Diplomat].

These same experts also assert that many of China's digital barricades violate World Trade Organization rules, and believe that the US and the EU should challenge Beijing before the WTO's dispute resolution council.

When it comes to trade, China has walked carefully, and at every turn attempted to pave the way with its own interests in mind. In 2001 China joined the World Trade Organization, a body that intends to supervise and liberalize international trade. With its entry into the WTO China spoke of a "win-win" and "all-win" situation for China as well as for the rest of the world [WTO]. 

However, China had already spoken of its intention of reshaping the organisation it wanted to join. Indeed at one particularly contentious point in its negotiations to enter the WTO, the Chinese ambassador reportedly thundered, "We know we have to play the game your way now, but in ten years we will set the rules!" [IIE]

It's now more than a decade since that boastful statement, and China is now beginning to make good on its threat.

The walling off of foreign Internet services in favour of its own home-grown, albeit self-censored platforms contravenes WTO principles on free trade and open market access, says Aynne Kokas, an expert on Chinese Internet policies at Rice University in Texas.

Indeed, while China prevents its 600 million Internet users from joining the global Facebook generation its own rising powers on the Web are not only free to operate across the US, but also have raised more than $40 billion on US stock exchanges [The Diplomat].

The WTO and its member states could bring China to task on such matters. However while stakes are high should it be given an ultimatum, the likelihood seems somewhat remote.

Last straw

The block on Gmail could prove to be the last straw and may prompt calls for representations be made to the Chinese government, despite their denials of blocking the service.

The outcry over the latest blockage was swift and angry with business travellers complaining they would no longer be able to access email while in China without jumping through hoops. Their Chinese counterparts have also complained that it will now be more difficult to conduct business internationally [CNN].

For US and European companies hoping to do business in the world's second largest economy, Beijing's approach presents a series of tough choices.

Companies that resist Beijing's censorship, as Google has done, are often punished as a result. Of major US social media platforms, only LinkedIn has been allowed to operate in China, and only after it agreed to block content [CNN / BBC / Guardian / Daily Mail / FTStraits Times].

Gradual restoration of Gmail

On Tuesday there were signs that the block on the world's largest Internet service was being lifted. 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 [FT].  

Whilst the recent Google block may have been a flash in the pan, it is a worrisome sign that networks outside the West cannot be relied upon. Russia is also flexing its muscles and has recently passed a law which forces data about its citizens to be held on local servers. The move has already prompted Google to pull its engineers out of the country and stirred fears of a wider exodus of engineering talent.

Disclosures of widespread Internet surveillance by the National Security Agency has not helped matters. Moreover many countries cite the revelations concerning the NSA, made public by Edward Snowden, as reason to  justify blocks to the free flow of information online. It has also weakened US calls for more liberal policies. "We have lost a lot of moral authority," says Milton Mueller, a professor of information studies at Syracuse University.

Nonetheless, governments and companies in the West must stand up to the growing bullying and protectionism displayed by the likes of China and Russia. Albert Einstein once said, "The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it."

Should the West continue to kowtow to China and others whilst they ride roughshod over WTO rules and other international norms, the situation will only worsen. Indeed in years to come the West may find itself in a position where it has no leverage or influence.

Shaping the Internet

China, in particular, has already put the concept of Internet sovereignty on the table. The proposal refers to the idea that a country has the right to control Internet activity within its own borders, and it is what China refers to as a natural extension of a nation-state's authority to handle its own domestic and foreign affairs [].

Lu Wei, the head of the State Internet Information Office and the director of a powerful cybersecurity strategy group comprised of China's top leaders, has been actively promoting China's plan [Huffington Post].

It is a project that some have speculated China has been planning for some time. Indeed, Internet sovereignty may be just the beginning. There are those who suspect China is planning to remap the Internet in its own image [Does China Hope to Remap the Internet in its Own Image? / Journal of International Media & Entertainment Law PDF]  

Wikipedia: Internet censorship in China / Censorship in ChinaWebsites blocked in China

See also: tvnewswatch: tit-for-tat builds in China trade wars / tvnewswatch: When Google departs China / tvnewswatch: Risks of tech-business in China / tvnewswatch: Trade wars and Internet blocks

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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