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Blocking Google Services Puts China at a Handicap During Disasters

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I was just reading a piece from Xinhua that says Chinese authorities suggest that it could use forms of social media to “educate the public about disaster mitigation.”

This is good.

But where various forms of social media and new internet services can really shine are in collecting and disseminating information after a disaster. Here in Japan after the 2011 earthquake, we saw almost the entire repertoire of Google’s services being used to spread information, ranging from Google Picasa, to Docs, to Calendar, to Maps, to App Engine, and more. Similarly, for the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Google put forth a similar effort.

As I’ve pointed out before, if we think about services on the internet using a food metaphor, Google’s services can be likened to ‘ingredients’ which can then be used to create ‘meals’ of information [1]. And while there are many such ingredients on the Chinese web, many of the tools that citizens could use to self-publish information in the wake of a crisis are hindered, if not blocked, by censorship.

Back in early 2009 when the CCTV building in Beijing caught on fire, some Chinese netizens improvised websites using Google Docs or Dropbox to share information. It would be far more difficult to do this now, unless you had a VPN – and most citizens don’t [2]. Google still has operations in China, but access can be sporadic as my colleagues in Beijing and Suzhou are well aware. Trying to bring up Street View in a Chinese city, for example, doesn’t quite work like it used to.

I think that in many ways services like Google’s are nearly approaching essential emergency infrastructure. And it’s a shame that Chinese authorities prefer to block many of those services. Instead they usually censor people’s voices in the wake of big events, in the hopes of silencing potential criticism.

Indeed hosting impromptu websites from any cloud storage services can be very useful in most countries, but to my knowledge, many of these services appear to have the public sharing function neutered, which is unfortunate [3].

Now I’ve also noted in the past that social media can not reach everyone in a disaster, especially in a demographic like Japan where we need to find a way to get information to order people, for example, as a lower portion of elderly people are likely to be frequently online. That’s where mobile services and carriers need to step up, I believe.

But I hope that in China, that Baidu can continue to develop cool offerings, even though it too is hardly immune to the problems of government censorship. And while we’ve seen a lot of government concern over Chinese microblogs, I hope they can thrive as a useful emergency communications platform as well.’

[Image: Technology News]


  1. This is not my own analogy, but I can’t recall where I first heard it. Let me know if you know where it came from.  ↩

  2. A hotel fire isn’t an earthquake, but you get the idea. Rapid response to disseminate information in the wake of a big event.

    According to my colleague Steven in China, these days Gmail and search are flaky in China, Youtube, Blogger, Docs, and Groups are all blocked.  ↩

  3. I could be wrong here, but I’m not aware of any Chinese services with this function. At least not any prominent ones.  ↩


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