Gmail issues surface in China as LinkedIn admits to Great Firewall uncertainty
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Gmail issues surface in China as LinkedIn admits to Great Firewall uncertainty

An IDG News article published yesterday suggests that the Chinese government may be responsible for delays and disruption suffered by Gmail users in the country over the last few weeks.

From the article (via PC World):

Gmail users are complaining on Chinese microblogs that the service has been slow or inaccessible. Google has reported no problems with access in China, but the complaints are ongoing and appear to have started late last month.

“Gmail access has been very poor in the last several days,” Mark Natkin, managing director of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting, said in an interview Monday. “And it doesn’t appear to be related to the earthquake in Japan, as other friends immediately outside of mainland China have reported having no difficulty.”

A spokeswoman for Google said the service was having no technical difficulties. “There is nothing technically wrong on our side, so you will have to ask the government as it is clearly an issue on their end,” the spokeswoman, Christine Chen, said in an e-mail.

Could the government be trying to monitor Gmail accounts?

It seems entirely possible as the hacking of accounts was one of the primary reasons the internet giant gave for its decision to withdraw from the Chinese market back in January 2010. Although it is worth pointing out that, as Google revealed, just two accounts were compromised so users need not be as paranoid as they may feel.

From the blog post:

Like many other well-known organizations, we face cyber attacks of varying degrees on a regular basis. In mid-December, we detected a highly sophisticated and targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property from Google. However, it soon became clear that what at first appeared to be solely a security incident–albeit a significant one–was something quite different.

We have evidence to suggest that a primary goal of the attackers was accessing the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists. Based on our investigation to date we believe their attack did not achieve that objective. Only two Gmail accounts appear to have been accessed, and that activity was limited to account information (such as the date the account was created) and subject line, rather than the content of emails themselves.

What is more likely a concern for Google is, as IDG points out, that slow loading times may result in Gmail users switching to rival services for a better quality experience.

China has been in the headlines for more tinkering with overseas web services when last month it temporarily blocked access to business social networking site LinkedIn.

Google, of course, has a long, much documented history with the Chinese government and its internet censorship policy while LinkedIn’s has likely only just begun, as the company illustrated when it listed the Chinese censorship issue as a risk in the prospectus for its upcoming IPO.

More details via The San Francisco Chronicle online:

A block by China is among circumstances under which “the value of our network could be negatively impacted,” LinkedIn said in an updated prospectus filed March 11. The company’s Jan. 27 offering document contained no such reference to China.

“The government of the People’s Republic of China recently blocked access to our site in China for a short period of time,” the latest filing said. “We cannot assure you that the Chinese government will not block access to one or more of our features and products or our entire site in China for a longer period of time or permanently.”

As I mentioned when news of the lifting of the block came out, the issue of censorship in China is unlikely to go away for LinkedIn though it remains to be seen how much of a negative mark the potential of zero visibility in the world’s most populous market will be for would-be LinkedIn investors.