The Google Problem

Google Transparency Report

Anyone who works on websites knows how ubiquitous Google’s products are.   While casual web-users are familiar with the search engine, YouTube, Google+, and such, those who build and maintain websites are aware of so much more that.

The World of Google

Google is famous in the web-development world for its APIs and Libraries.  These are features that allow website creators to collect statistics, utilize fonts and emojis maintained by Google, and have access to a plethora of tools that make their work easier and more manageable.

These tools from Google have become so common, that they are built into to many of the other tools that web developers use.  From the Content Management Systems (CMS) that run the websites to the pre-built themes that give the the site its look–almost anything could be “calling” to Google.

As an example.  I set up the website for Huaye Tent & Pavilion.  They’re a manufacturer of temporary clearspan structures that operates out of Kunshan, China (near Shanghai).  The site is built using WordPress CMS, and the Customizr (free) theme.  Customizr has some very nice features–one of which is pre-selected font pairings.  The designers working on the theme have chosen pairs of fonts that visually work well together, and work with the overall look of the theme.  That’s great!  Except…

The Great Firewall

Google is blocked in China via the Great Firewall (GFW)–a massive and powerful tool of censorship set up (ostensibly) to “protect the people of China from harmful influences and disruption of their culture”1I’ll leave the actual reasons as an exercise for the reader. The GFW doesn’t just prevent you from watching cute kittens on YouTube, it blocks virtually all access to anything Google–like, for example, those pretty fonts I mentioned above.  This doesn’t just cause the fonts to display incorrectly, it stops the entire site from loading.

During some initial tests–before I knew what was causing the problem–there were frequent instances where, after up to 2 minutes, the website still hadn’t loaded.  It was a blank, white screen.  When you’re dealing with a corporate website, that’s utterly unacceptable.

Getting to the Root of the Problem

It took a lot of Googling (ironically) to find the answer:  the aforementioned fonts.  There were a few other hidden Google tools to root out, as well.  In my case, I managed to find a tool that took care of it: the “Useso take over Google” plugin by Bruno Xu.  It automatically takes any “call” to Google and redirects it to a copy of that library, which is on a server that can be accessed from inside China.

That solves the issue for this particular instance.  But that plug-in may not work for those in other countries.  Or they might not be using WordPress.  Or… any number of other things.

And the situation isn’t unique to Google.  A lot of websites, apps, and other web-based gizmos are relying on tools provided by some of the big names of the internet.  Mobile phone apps may, for instance, use statistical tools from Facebook, cloud servers from Amazon, or APIs from Twitter.  If those are blocked by a government or an employer2lots of companies block Facebook and Twitter on company networks so workers don’t spend all day on those sites, it may make the app useless.  Whatsapp, for instance, is used as a valuable business-communication tool.  It’s owned by Facebook, and may fall behind a Facebook block.

What’s the solution?  I don’t have one.  Partly because there isn’t one.   It’s not one issue, so there’s not “one” solution.  What we can do, however, is–as developers, maintainers, and users–to pay more attention to the tools that we’re using and think about how they will interact with the world at large.

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References   [ + ]

1. I’ll leave the actual reasons as an exercise for the reader
2. lots of companies block Facebook and Twitter on company networks so workers don’t spend all day on those sites