Google has switched off its censorship warning tool for Chinese users of its search services, striking a blow for internet freedoms.
The search giant had introduced the tool during the summer of 2012 in a measure to combat the so-called "Great Firewall of China" that hides information on certain terms and events as decided by the country's ruling Communist party.
The tool worked by telling a user if a term they search for would trigger the filter and that this issue was beyond Google's control, helping raise awareness of censorship in the country.
However, according to Chinese censorship monitoring group Greatfire.org, Google switched off the service between 5-8 December and removed the help page explaining how it worked, suggesting the firm was forced to kowtow to pressure from the Chinese authorities.
"Since the removal of the help article could only be done willingly by Google, the only explanation we see is that Google struck a deal with the Chinese government, giving in to considerable pressure to self-censor," Greatfire.org said in a blog post on Friday.
It speculated that China may have used a takedown of Google services in November 2012 to demonstrate its ability to hamper its efforts to build on its 25 million strong user base in the nation.
"It [the November block] may have been an instance of the government showing off its power to Google and using it as a leverage in their negotiations," it added.
A Google spokesperson confirmed the feature has been disabled but declined to comment further.
GreatFire.org said it sympathised with Google, given its history of standing up to the Chinese government on issues of censorship, but said the move was a notable blow against its efforts.
"We appreciate that Google tries to stand up to the government, even though it seems to have been forced to bow down," the blog post said.
"A weakened Google suggests that it won't continue to push the boundaries of censorship in China. For example, it is unlikely to start redirecting all Chinese users to its HTTPS version of Google Search, even though that would enable searching of all blocked keywords in one strike."
Google's frosty relationship with China dates back to early 2010 when it announced it would be removing all censorship of search services after claiming it was the target of hacking attacks aimed at gaining information on human rights groups in the country.
It backtracked on this stance over time but relations between the two have remained terse.
Dan Worth is the news editor for V3 having first joined the site as a reporter in November 2009. He specialises in a raft of areas including fixed and mobile telecoms, data protection, social media and government IT. Before joining V3 Dan covered communications technology, data handling and resilience in the emergency services sector on the BAPCO Journal.