Internet censors in China have tightened their grip on Google over the Christmas holidays by blocking Gmail entirely in the country. The country’s firewall is being blamed after months of disruptions to the world’s biggest email service, affecting nearly 1.3 billion accounts.
On Friday, numerous Gmail web addresses were cut off in China, according to GreatFire.org, a China-based freedom of speech advocacy group. Users said the service was still down on Monday.
“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 the group who uses a pseudonym. “Imagine if Gmail users might not get through to Chinese clients. Many people outside China might be forced to switch away from Gmail.”
Traffic displayed has dropped to nearly zero, according to Google’s transparency reports which provides real-time information about traffic to Google services.
Google’s services have been heavily disrupted in China since June, but users could still access their Gmail accounts via IMAP, SMTP and POP3 protocols that allowed people to communicate using Gmail on apps like the Apple iPhone’s Mail and Microsoft Outlook.
China is known to maintain tight control over the internet. Any signs of dissent or challenges to the ruling Communist party’s leadership are controlled rigorously. It was found last year that the country's version of Twitter, Weibo can erase controversial posts in real time. China also blocked Instagram in Hong Kong during protests in September.
The country’s most sophisticated internet censorship mechanism, The Great Firewall of China is known for the restrictions it places on the online activities of Chinese citizens. Critics believe that over the past year, China has enhanced its disruption of foreign online services like Google to create an internet cut off from the rest of the world.
China began disrupting Google services the run-up to the 25th anniversary of the government’s crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
Gmail’s setback could cause huge problems for China’s companies that use Google’s Gmail for their corporate email system.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said she had little knowledge about Gmail being blocked, adding that the government was committed to offering 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.”
The only way for Chinese citizens and companies to access Gmail at this point would be to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) that allows access to blocked sites and services.