Google Search Off Again, On Again in China

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-07-30 Print this article Print

Sometimes patience pays off in this media business, even in the blogosphere where first and fast often equals leading the pack.

Last night I watched TechMeme light up for an hour or so with this collection of stories about Google's search being, again, blocked in China.

Reuters led the pack in reporting that Google's search, images, mobile, news and ads services were down.

The problem with all of the reporting is this: Reporters go to this mainland China operations dashboard Web page Google set up months ago amid its disagreement with China over censorship.

Because of the omnipresent censorship in China, the media assumes that any outage is a deliberate block and implies that as such in their coverage without getting tacit confirmation from Google.

Reuters did well to point out this distinction early on when it wrote in its story published at 6:43 p.m. EDT that:

It was unclear whether access had been blocked by the Chinese government or if it was a temporary service disruption. A Google spokesman said he did not have any immediate information on the change in service availability.

Yet, the New York Times and others in the reporting rabble followed up with several reports of search and other Web services being blocked in China.

While this is certainly in my coverage wheelhouse for eWEEK, I remember this happening months ago and Reuters and everyone else wrote stories on it then.

Who could blame them? In March we all reported China's block on search services, originally believed to be a technical issue, then attributed to China's Great Firewall.

Google went back and forth, so, rather than furiously banging out a story last night, I pinged my contact at Google around 8 p.m. EDT. Google had information by this time, essentially offering a mea culpa:

Because of the way we measure accessibility in China, it's possible that our machines could overestimate the level of blockage. That seems to be what happened last night when there was a relatively small blockage. It appears now that users in China are accessing our properties normally.

My contact added this gem of a disclaimer: "Please also note that the dashboard is not a real time tool."

That sums up the problem, or at least the first of a two-step problem that leads to ugly media coverage.

First, the Website isn't necessarily reflective of what's going on right then, which means it may show service is down for some Google properties but not necessarily provide a cause for the downtime.

In other words, is the issue Google's technical screw-up or blockage stemming from China's communist practices?

Second part of the two-part problem: So many media members are intent on being first to cover dissent in China that they, by their zealousness, are fashioning skirmishes between Google and China that aren't there.

Reuters published this separate piece to reflect the actuality.

Stories from the Times to ReadWriteWeb and others who pounced on the outages are littered with updates that read like little mea culpas. Something along the lines of "we reported this, but Google is saying now that ..."

Ugly, but that's the iterative nature of Web media today, right? What's that saying? Don't hate the player, hate the game?

Again, it sometimes pays to be patient before publishing.

But Google could do a much better job to mediate this coverage issue by providing faster diagnoses, or by just not updating the dashboard until it knows whether the problem is on Google's side of the firewall or China's.

It will save media from writing incomplete or inaccurate stories and it will save Google from having to reach out for updates and corrections. |

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