Are enterprise users of Google's cloud-based applications in China in for a stormy ride?
Google apparently felt compelled to address the issue in a blog post on Tuesday -- not surprising given the widely publicized state of its rocky relationship with the Chinese government and its recent decision to stop abiding by the government's censorship requirements for search results. As a result of that move, Google is now redirecting users of its Google.cn search engine to a new site, Google.com.hk in Hong Kong, where the government doesn't censor results.
But Chinese state media quickly blasted the move and it's widely expected that China will shut down access to the search engine. And if Google's search engine is blocked, could similar action be taken to restrict access to Google Apps?
Google said it hopes not.
"First, we very much hope that the Chinese government respects our decision, though we are well aware that China could at any time block access to our services in mainland China," the company said in the blog post. "We will be carefully monitoring access issues and we have created this new Web page, which we will update regularly each day, so that you can see which Google services are available in China."
The Mainland China serviceability page shows that Google's YouTube, Sites and Blogger -- blocked well in advance of the current dust-up -- continue to be inaccessible to mainland China users, while a few others, including Picasa and Docs, are being labeled "partially blocked." The Chinese government routinely blocks content and Web sites it deems illegal such as content about the Tiananmen Square uprising. As Google's blog post notes, social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have long been blocked in China.
Enterprise workarounds to the Great Firewall
For business customers, Google said there are several networking configurations and related technologies it said will help ensure ongoing access to "critical business services such as Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs."
Google said network configurations, such as a Virtual Private Network (VPN) connection, secure shell (SSH) tunneling, or using a proxy server, are already in place by many businesses with worldwide operations who serve their users from various locations.
"Companies should consult their own technical, legal and policy personnel to find a solution that works best for them," Google said, noting also that it doesn't host any Google Apps services, or user data, in mainland China.
"Moreover, Google employees in mainland China do not have access to any Apps systems or customer data," it added.
At the end of the post, Google sought to downplay the issues of access in China as nothing new:
"We recognize that these issues are not unique to Google; many technology companies serving users in China face challenges in providing access to their services, and we don't see yesterdays news changing how we serve you moving forward."
But Raju Vegesna, evangelist for Google Apps competitor Zoho, said that if the government chooses to restrict Google Apps, it'll be case closed for consumers and a hassle for many business customers.
"They do it already with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and it's really no different than companies anywhere restricting access to certain Web sites," he told InternetNews.com.
"If the government there isn't happy, it's going to be tough because they can throttle the bandwidth and do a lot of things to make Web access difficult."
As for enterprise customers, Vegesna said new restrictions would be a "major inconvenience and challenge" to companies that don't already circumvent the country's censorship by implementing the workarounds Google's recommended. Vegesna said Zoho has partnered with a large distributor in a joint venture, Baihui.com, to make its Zoho Suite available locally behind the so-called Great Firewall.
A Google spokesman said the company had no further comment beyond what was in the blog post.