Internet & Tech, Talking Point

The day the emails stopped

Google back in Beijing’s firing line as Gmail ceases to work in China?

A man looks from behind a glass door at the Google Inc Shanghai office in Shanghai

Shutting up shop: Google has had a difficult time operating in China

In case you’ve ever wondered, the world’s first email was sent by tech engineer Ray Tomlinson. He did so in 1971. According to America’s National Public Radio, Tomlinson was inspired to build the new messaging system because he was fed up with his colleagues not answering their phones. So he devised a means to send messages between one computer and another on the ARPANET network, which had been developed by his employer the Boston-based tech firm BBN Techologies.

In the process, says NPR, Tomlinson invented the “system we now know as email” and was the first person to use the @ sign in an address.

He began by sending messages between computers 10 feet apart. “I could wheel my chair from one to the other and type a message on one, and then go to another, and see what I had tried to send,” he told NPR.

What was in the first email ever sent? Sadly Tomlinson doesn’t remember, saying his test messages were gibberish, made up, for example, of the top line of characters from the keyboard (“QWERTYUIOP”).“The first email [I sent] is completely forgettable,” he muses. “And, therefore, forgotten”.

Almost three and a half decades later Google would release it own variant of Tomlinson’s invention, calling it Gmail. It would become one of the most ubiquitous communications tools on the planet (indeed last May it was the first app on the Google Play Store to reach one billion installations for Android-based mobile devices). But in late December Gmail suddenly became a lot less ubiquitous in China, where it ceased to work. That got some wondering if Beijing had resumed hostilities in its long-running war of attrition with Gmail’s owner Google.

What happened?

On December 27 users of Gmail in China suddenly found they could not receive messages or send messages to Gmail accounts outside China. “We have completely lost contact with Gmail,” the president of the DCCI Internet Research Institute wrote on his weibo. “From now on do not expect email updates in your mail client.”

Google, of course, has a fractious relationship with the Chinese government, stemming from a refusal to censor its search engine. As a result, it withdrew from mainland China’s internet search business in 2010, leaving the field to be dominated by local player Baidu.

Not all of Google’s services went into headlong retreat from the Chinese market. Phones using its Android operating system have flourished, for example. And Gmail was largely functional for anyone still keen to use it. True, the web-based version was blocked but as ABC News points out, “users had been able to circumvent this by accessing the service through tablets, smartphones and third-party applications such as Microsoft Outlook”.

It was these workaround techniques that stopped functioning on December 27, causing a major stir among the millions who access the service from their smartphones.

Because the breakdown occurred in the festive period, the Hong Kong Economic Times described it as the Chinese government’s “Christmas gift” to Google.

What was the reaction?

Google users were shocked and frustrated in equal measure. A typical weibo comment was: “This is disgusting and really annoying, bringing a lot of inconvenience to life.”

Or as another put it: “The Chinese Ministry of Commerce said that in 2015 China will improve the environment for foreign investment. Gmail has been blocked so we cannot receive emails from foreigners. Is this improving the environment? You must be kidding!”

Then there were those who took a more tongue-in-cheek approach: “Why don’t we build a fence around China, since it is consistent with our tradition of seclusion? Why don’t we block out all information from the outside like North Korea?”

Businesspeople and students were said to be the most inconvenienced. In the case of businesses it led to some local firms losing foreign orders, according to New Express Daily. It quoted a source from Guangzhou: “I often use Gmail to communicate with foreign customers. Now I cannot logon to Gmail, I am worrying about how to notify overseas clients.”

The Beijing correspondent of The Australian reported that foreign businesses in China were struggling too. He spoke to the boss of Axis Leisure Management and was told that this “latest inconvenience” was yet another hurdle for those trying to make a living in China. “We run our email system through Gmail because globally it is versatile and flexible,” the executive said, adding he was considering a costly switch to another platform.

Another group unnerved by the sudden failure of the email service were those students who have applied to universities abroad. New Express pointed out that late December is a critical period in the application process and the students might have missed out on crucial emails from admissions departments. As one netizen wrote on his blog: “This blockade will bring great inconvenience to students in contact with colleges and universities overseas. The experience will make them less duty-bound when considering whether to return home a few years later.”

A new government crackdown?

There has been no official confirmation that Gmail has been blocked at the government’s behest, with the Foreign Ministry claiming to be unaware of the issue, according to the Associated Press. However, it is hard to imagine that Gmail traffic could have been throttled without the government’s knowledge. The state-backed – and often polemical – newspaper Global Times said the reasons were unclear. But it added that there were justifications for why a blockage might occur: “Google often has friction with many countries. China welcomes Google’s business when in compliance with the law in China, but Google puts more emphasis on its own values, hoping not to be bound by Chinese law, which led to the last round of friction between both sides.”

“If the China side indeed blocked Gmail, the decision must have been prompted by newly emerged security reasons,” the editorial added. “If that is the case, Gmail users need to accept the reality of Gmail being suspended in China.”

When news of the blockage broke, Western media sources were quick to suggest Beijing was trying to control more of the flow of information over the internet. But another explanation relates more to technological dominance. China’s authorities are increasingly hostile to the foreign software and hardware used by so many Chinese to go online via their smartphones. For example, regulators in Beijing are on the verge of announcing a major antitrust ruling against Qualcomm (the firm that makes the chips powering smartphones). Similarly, they may be bristling that Google’s Android operating system powers the majority of the mobile internet (with Apple accounting for the rest). As WiC has written before, the authorities have been encouraging state champions to come up with a local operating system as an alternative (so far unsuccessfully).

Of course, EU bosses also worry about Google’s extraordinary reach and dominance. Brussels-based politicians may even have mixed emotions about Gmail’s Chinese travails, as they have been irked by Google’s market position but feel relatively powerless to do anything about it. The Chinese Communist Party, it turns out, may be one of the few entities both willing and capable of taking the Silicon Valley giant down a peg or two.

In the United States the incident is being viewed more as a battle of ideas and principles. “A years-long war between Google and China that highlights the ideological chasm between the two behemoths has now entered a new phase,” warned the Washington Post, although ABC News reported this week that another phase in the struggle may already have began, with a partial recovery of service. Access to Gmail “is slowly being restored after it mysteriously dropped to a near-zero level last weekend,” it claimed.

In fact, traffic in China was restored to a quarter of its pre-Christmas levels earlier this week, according to Google data. But the anecdotal information that WiC has received is that when and if Gmail works at all in China, it is discouragingly slow…

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