Can the Chinese Google or Not?
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Now you see it, now you don't, seems to be the overall strategic plan for the Chinese government lately concerning Internet censorship.
A medium that is both deplored by the Chinese as a threat to its closed-circle, communist ideal, and yet revered for its vast money-making capabilities has been the cause of some very blatant attempts to control China's more than 46 million Internet users.
While Web site censorship is not a new issue for Chinese citizens who are generally accustomed to being blocked from certain American media sites and religious and pornographic material, popular search engines Google and Alta Vista have been the cause of a recent flare-up of paranoia among government officials who are not keen on their citizens having unlimited access to the 'Information Highway." Or the ability to search for and access information on just about every topic under the sun, be it unflattering news stories about Chinese President Jiang Zemin or the latest Madonna gossip.
Until recently, the government had not thought to put a freeze on search engines, among which Google is the search engine of choice for its multilingual search capabilities. But by the first week of September, Google was blipped off China's Internet radar screen, followed by a blip on Alta Vista this week, and surfers were either given an error message or re-routed to a handful of Chinese-run equivalents that abide by strict censorship rules.
To make matters more confusing, access to Google was mysteriously restored in China on Thursday, although according to sources, some politically sensitive search subjects were still blocked.
A spokesperson for the Mountain View, Calif.-based company confirmed that Google was hearing from its users in Beijing that they were able to access Google, although she could not confirm that some of Google's content was being censored.
Industry analysts are speculating that China's recent blacklisting of Google and Alta Vista could be either indication that one hand of the Chinese government doesn't know what the other hand is doing, or that officials are seeking to cash in on developing their own computer network and create a Chinese-based Internet infrastructure that they can both control and monopolize at the same time.
"China wants to be part of the modern economy," said Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "But breaking the greatest tool of democracy demonstrates that they have a long way to go. The technological and legal ability to break the Internet is a major step backward for them."
According to the New York Times, up to 80 percent of China's Internet traffic flows through ChinaNet, a subsidiary of China Telecom, and that government mandates to block certain sites can be executed as easily for Internet service providers as flipping a light switch.
When Google.com or any other Web address is typed into a keyboard, a query is sent to the user's ISP, which then returns the Internet Protocol (IP) address for the site. All the ISP has to do is return the IP address of a site other than Google and censorship is alive and well.
According to sources, the Chinese government has been toying with this kind of Web control since the onset of the Internet's worldwide popularity. But this is apparently the first time a domain name has been deliberately diverted for purposes of maintaining government control.
"The idea that when you type in a Web site address you can get to that address is really important," said Cohn. "It's what the Internet promises to people worldwide, a level playing field. The blocking of search engines is particularly troubling because that's where you find things, and when you begin crippling the Internet's navigation tools, it has a tremendous impact."
According to Mike Jackman of the California ISP Association, Google has little legal recourse against this type of domain hijacking, and until the market matures and international law is established, the Chinese government can do whatever it pleases.
According to Jackman, the power of international business law is only as powerful as its ability to convince other governments to follow suit.
"If this kind of thing was done by a Google competitor, then there would be ramifications," said Cohn. "But for government, it's their wires and they can do what they want."
Chinese officials have not made a statement regarding the blocking or un-blocking of Google, although Chinese media have reported that Google was shut down earlier this month because it was believed to contain harmful content. Alta Vista still remains unavailable to Chinese Web surfers, according to reports.
"It always takes longer than we want, but eventually they'll have to loosen the bond and people will be free to cruise the Net," said Jackman. "It could be a year or a decade, but it will happen. Every piece of technology that is intended to keep people from certain Web sites is eventually leapfrogged by another technology that can get past it. That's just the nature of things."