Google's term as a search provider in China may at last be coming to an end. Reports from all over the country indicate that would-be users are only getting error messages when they conduct searches, even if their queries cover completely bland and innocent terms.
Aaron Back, who's based in Beijing, wrote earlier, "Internet users reported new disruptions to Google Inc. Internet search services in China on Tuesday afternoon, with many saying they are unable to search for any term on the Google site." Test words included "happy" and "the," not just things like "Tiananmen Square massacre."
This could be the result of a mistake; a number of Chinese Twitter users have suggested that the problem's been caused by an automated program noticing the letters "RFA" (as in Radio Free Asia) in results pages' URLs.
Still, since the error messages are appearing just one day after Google found that its mobile service had been partially blocked, the development appears rather ominous.
Google's supposed to be looking into the matter. The Chinese government hasn't yet issued an official statement. We'll be sure to report any additional information as it becomes available.
UPDATE: Google has released a statement tentatively confirming the RFA theory, after all: "This blockage seems to have been triggered by a change on Google's part. In the last 24 hours 'gs_rfai' started appearing in the URLs of Google searches globally as part of a search parameter, a string of characters that sends information about the query to Google so we can return the best result. Because this parameter contained the letters rfa the great firewall was associating these searches with Radio Free Asia, a service that has been inaccessible in China for a long time--hence the blockage."
UPDATE 2: Scratch that. Google's now stated, "Having looked into this issue in more detail, it's clear we actually added this parameter a week ago. So whatever happened today to block Google.com.hk must have been as a result of a change in the great firewall."