Computer users in China have had sporadic access to their Gmail accounts in recent weeks. For some, access is inconsistent. For others, it has been completely blocked.
The California-based computer company Google, which offers Gmail, issued a statement saying it is not having any technical problems with its main website or Gmail service in China. It said the problems are "government blockage, carefully designed to look like the problem is with Gmail."
China’s Foreign Ministry had no immediate comment, and did not respond to questions submitted last week about Gmail service problems.
China has some of the strictest Internet controls in the world, and already blocks public access to a wide range of websites with content it deems illegal or pornographic.
Mark Natkin, with Marbridge Consulting, says he thinks the Chinese government may be responsible for the latest problems with Gmail.
"The service seems to be working fine outside China. We have talked to individuals located immediately outside of mainland China, all of whom have reported that their Gmail service is working without disruption. So, it seems that it is almost certainly something that the authorities here are doing," he says.
The new controls may be related to events in the Middle East, adds Natkin, where popular uprisings have led to leadership changes in some countries.
"I think this is much more closely related to the upheaval in the Middle East and concerns that there might be people calling for a similar activity in China."
He says he hopes the situation in China will be relaxed after, in his words, "things settle down" in the Middle East.
Chinese microblogs have blocked searches for words like "Jasmine," following Internet calls from abroad for Chinese to hold their own "Jasmine Revolution," similar to the Middle East protests.
Some Chinese users like Gmail because it includes Gchat, which is an instant messaging service that allows users to talk to each other via video.
One Beijing college student, who did not give her name, says she has noticed problems with her account in recent weeks, especially to her Gchat function.
Her Gmail account is not stable, she says, and that if she wants to communicate with people on Gchat, she has to refresh her web page or completely log in again. But she adds that if the Chinese government indeed is to blame for the latest problems, then she would want to use Gmail even more.
Another Beijing college student who also has a Gmail account says he has not had much difficulty because his university has its own computer network that allows access to some sites that are publicly blocked.
He also did not give his name, but pointed to Google’s high-profile decision last year to pull out of China.
He says after that, Google’s reputation among Chinese netizens went up. He also says many people have the impression that Google services like Gmail can evade government blocks, so he thinks it is natural that the Chinese government would want to target Google.
Last year, Google pulled its Chinese language Internet search engine from China and relocated it to Hong Kong, where there are fewer controls, because of cyber attacks and concerns over Chinese government censorship.