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Gmail gets burned by China’s 'Great Firewall'

Google's Gmail service has been cut off in China since Friday, leaving citizens and some companies without e-mail access. The only way to access Gmail is through a VPN, which allows users to bypass China's notorious 'Great Firewall.'

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    Google's Gmail service has been blocked in China for several days. Here, a security guard walks past the Google China headquarters in Beijing.
    Andy Wong/AP/File
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Google’s Gmail service was blocked in China over the weekend, and large numbers of users were still without their e-mail service on Monday.

Various Google services have been blocked in China since at least 2009, but this is the first time people in China have lost access to Gmail even through third-party programs such as Microsoft Outlook or Apple Mail.

Google’s Transparency Report, which shows real-time traffic to the company’s services, shows Gmail traffic in China dropped to near zero on December 26.

"I think the government is just trying to further eliminate Google's presence in China and even weaken its market overseas," an unnamed member of GreatFire.org, a Chinese freedom of speech group, told Reuters on Monday. Most reports on the outage suggest that China’s “Great Firewall” is responsible for the blocking. The so-called “Great Firewall” blocks access to certain websites, including those the Chinese government finds politically objectionable, and also monitors people’s Internet activity within the country.

It’s still possible to access Gmail in China by using a VPN, or virtual private network – a point-to-point connection that allows individuals to bypass Internet censorship by encrypting traffic or using a tunneling protocol. Companies headquartered in China that use Gmail as their e-mail service will experience disruption unless their employees use VPNs to bypass the blocking. Gmail addresses are also popular among Chinese students, many of whom use their accounts to apply to universities in other countries. Those students could have a tough time completing their applications if access to Gmail remains cut off.

China began disrupting Google services in June, ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, and the violent government response to those protests. The country’s Communist Party controls what online materials are accessible within Chinese borders; critics say this censorship cuts the Chinese Internet off from the rest of the world.

Hua Chunying, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, told Reuters that the government was committed to supporting foreign companies. “China has consistently had a welcoming and supportive attitude towards foreign investors doing legitimate business here,” she commented, adding, “We will, as always, provide an open, transparent and good environment for foreign companies in China.”

Taj Meadows, a spokesman for Google Asia Pacific, told the Associated Press that the company is investigating the outage in China, but that it doesn’t appear that anything is wrong from a technical standpoint. This suggests that the Great Firewall is behind the blocking, and that Gmail might not return to China until, or unless, the government decides to allow it.

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