Google is returning to China? It never really left


A Chinese national flag flies in front of the Google China headquarters in Beijing Photograph: Sinopix/REX/Sinopix/REX

WITH Google reportedly in talks with Chinese authorities about opening a new Android app store, speculation is rife that an agreement could see government-approved apps would come automatically installed on Google’s Android smartphones designed for the Chinese market.

Many interpret this step as Google planting a seed for its eventual return to China after exiting the Chinese market five years ago – yet our research at the University of Pennsylvania shows that Google has never completely left.

While Google search and other apps have been blocked in mainland China, another arm of the company – Google Analytics – the largest web analytics service in the world – has continued to actively operate in China to this day. According to Google, the Analytics service allows website operators to “analyse visitor traffic and paint a complete picture of [the] audience and their needs.” Essentially it means Google Analytics is able to create a record of what pages are visited and how a user has interacted with a given page. Google Analytics provides this service at no cost to website operators around the world, including those based in China.

On 8 September, as part of our research into Chinese internet governance, we used a mainland-based computer system to analyse 465 popular Chinese websites for the presence of hidden tracking mechanisms. We discovered that 92% of these sites “leaked” user data to hidden parties, including many Chinese internet firms such as Baidu.

This number is not surprising, and is in line with prior research we have conducted on health websites in the United States. More surprising is that 36% of the Chinese sites contained hidden code which connects Chinese users’ computers to Google’s servers. Of greatest interest, the vast majority of these connections are not blocked by the Great Firewall, despite the fact that on the same server we were unable to access other Google services like Search.
The presence of Google Analytics is of strategic value for Google’s potential expansion into China. Although Analytics is a free service, it pays for itself by giving Google vital knowledge about an individual’s interests, allowing Google to build digital dossiers on countless Chinese users. If the Android app store does return to China, Google may leverage this wealth of existing knowledge on user habits to recommend relevant apps and target ads to these seemingly “new” Google customers from day one. If Google expands its service offerings with the blessing of Chinese authorities, possessing a pre-compiled portrait of consumers is an obvious advantage.

Beyond business implications, the presence of Google Analytics service raises ethical questions about the company. Our investigation has revealed that only 13% of connections to Google servers were encrypted to protect the privacy of Chinese users. The vast majority, 87%, are transmitted without encryption; this makes it easy for any entity monitoring China’s internet backbone to intercept and read Google-directed traffic. Unfortunately for Chinese netizens who care about their privacy, the Great Firewall is designed to intercept exactly the type of traffic flowing unencrypted to Google’s servers.

Google Analytics, moreover, is challenging for users to disable. The service does not honor the “Do Not Track” standard, and is largely invisible to any given user who is being tracked without notice or consent. Users must first be aware that Google Analytics exists (often by reading news reports, which in the Chinese context may be censored), and then taking proactive measures to learn about ways to block unwanted corporate surveillance.

We acknowledge that Google Analytics may also be used towards some positive governance changes in China. It can be deployed for a “scientific” study of online public opinion – a practice that has rapidly grown in China in recent years and is aimed at more effective official responsiveness to public concerns. Our research found that key government and party units at national and local levels have both in-house and privately contracted personnel dedicated to the study of public opinion. It is highly likely these units employ Google Analytics as one source of data.
Nonetheless, before talking about Google’s delayed re-entry into China, we need to pause and acknowledge that they never really left. Google Analytics has continued to transmit data across the Great Firewall despite other services being blocked—something that is unlikely an accident for either Google or Chinese internet regulators. Unknown to most internet users, the presence of Google Analytics on the Chinese web may help the company get a head start on a full-scale return. Google’s lack of transparency in this matter further aggravates growing concerns over online privacy, which transcend geographic and political boundaries.

• Timothy Libert is a PhD Student at the University of Pennsylvania and a Senior Information Controls Fellow with the Open Technology Fund in partnership with the Ranking Digital Rights project: / 00 1 347-268-7043

• Maria Repnikova is scholar of Chinese and Russian media politics, and a post-doctoral fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania: / 00 1 202-812-4443