Over the weekend, something stranger than usual happened on Google’s burgeoning social network Google Plus: The official Google Plus page of U.S. President Barack Obama was flooded with comments from Chinese users, many of them reveling in being able to post on the website for the first time, and in Chinese characters no less.
Chinese comments have since appeared throughout the week. Reuters translated some of the comments posted on the President’s page: “Many people don’t understand the meaning why all Chinese are coming here. We envy American people their democracy and freedom!” was the translation of one person named Lihui Chen.
But researchers and writers are still puzzling over just how the comments were able to be posted on the website in the first place, given that China has blocked most Google products beginning with YouTube in 2009 as part of its so-called “Great Firewall.”
Google told Reuters it hadn’t changed anything in its own services. Meanwhile, Reuters and other major news outlets including TIME’s Techland blog and the UK tech website The Register theorized that the sudden, unexpected access of Google Plus in China was due to a glitch in China’s government-imposed censorship of the Web, specifically one that allowed Chinese mobile phone users to access Google Plus.
“My guess at the moment is that the Great Firewall underwent some recent updates and that there were a few bugs in the rollout,” Glucroft wrote in a post on his personal blog, Isidor’s Fugue. “However, there are some peculiar aspects regarding the reported recent accessibility of Google+ that make me wonder if there is more to the story.”
In an email to TPM, Glucroft offered yet another theory: “Sometimes, I wonder if China deliberately makes the GFW inconsistent or applied irregularly just to confound attempts to probe/understand it.”
Glucroft further pointed out that in his experience, website blocking varied from region to region in China, and that he had actually been able to access Google Plus in the city Guangzhou last month.
But given how tight-lipped China is about the Great Firewall, its impossible to say for certain yet what exactly is going on. A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry told Voice of America that the Chinese goverment “protects Chinese citizens’ rights to free expression on the Internet. But he also warned that they should express themselves according to Chinese laws and regulations,” as Voice of America put it.
That said, another person Voice of America spoke to was Jeremy Goldkorn, editor in chief of Danwei.com, a China-focused Internet and media research firm. Goldkorn said that many of the comments were not meant to be serious outcries for freedom from China’s Internet restrictions but rather intended to be jokes.
Ryan Budish, director of Herdict, a global Web accessibility reporting forum created by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Society and the Internet confirmed that his organization had received reports of unexpected Google Plus access in China, and posed a number of alternative theories as to what could be behind it. As Budish wrote in an email to TPM, the appearance of the comments could “mean one of several things.”
“(1) That the glitch in the “Great Firewall” began more recently. This does not appear to be the case, however, because if you look at President Obama’s page, there are Chinese comments predating 2/22 (but the vast majority begin 2/24)
(2) that those individuals who are getting through are using mobile devices, which has been noted as a possible hole in the Chinese filtering system. So our data may indicate that wired ISPs are still blocking Google+. Or,
(3) That this filtering is not occurring at the “Great Firewall” level, but is in fact a self-imposed censorship occurring at the ISP level. Thus, it might be imposed somewhat inconsistently across ISPs (particularly mobile vs wired).”
Budish explained that “the second two options seem more likely, but it’s hard to say which one might be right.”
As for why President Obama’s Google Plus page was the one that was the focal point of Chinese commentators, Budish theorized: “If you were in China trying to send a message to the US government to ask them to pursue a stronger agenda for Chinese Internet freedom, President Obama is the most obvious and well known recipient.”
So for now, at least, it appears that the sudden accessibility of Google Plus in China will remain a mystery. But for Google, it can only be a good thing: The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday reported that Google Plus has been slow to catch on with social networking users, with the website only averaging 3 minutes worth of a user’s time each month compared to seven hours for competitor Facebook (which, it should be noted, is also blocked in China).