Google, Yahoo caught in the glare of China's ideological firewall
By Bill Smith Feb 16, 2006, 12:57 GMT
A finger points at a computer screen, which displays the logo of the internet company Yahoo! EPA/JENS BUETTNER
Beijing - Search for 'six four' in Chinese and you get two million hits on Google's international site.
Repeat the search on Google's new Chinese domain, google.cn, and you get 163,000 matches for the seemingly innocuous pair of numbers.
'Six four' is actually the Chinese shorthand for June 4, 1989, when troops used tanks and live rounds to clear pro-democracy protesters from Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
The top results on google.com are all from websites blocked by the Chinese government, including the BBC, US-run Radio Free Asia and several Chinese-language sites that regularly criticize the ruling Communist Party. Click on any one of them and you normally get a 'could not connect to remote server' message that is generated by the Chinese government's firewall.
The results on google.cn contain none of the links to blocked sites but a message at the bottom of each page says: 'According to local laws, regulations and policies, some of the results are not shown.'
It is this decision by Google to self-censor that has angered many critics, even though global competitors such as Microsoft and Yahoo had long complied with Chinese censorship requirements.
The firms argue that even censored access to global websites will promote long-term openness in China.
They claim they have no choice if they want to succeed in the rapidly growing market for China's estimated 111 million internet users, still less than one-third of the number of mobile telephone subscribers among China's 1.3 billion people.
But many critics are not convinced by these arguments.
'Internet companies justify their actions on the basis of Chinese regulations,' Amnesty International's Secretary General Irene Khan said in a recent statement. 'In fact, such agreements and the resulting self-censorship violate both international standards and China's own constitution,' Khan said.
Also blocked are thousands of references to Tiananmen Square, leading dissidents, anti-government protests, the banned Falun Gong spiritual group and the Dalai Lama - Tibet's exiled Buddhist leader.
Liu Zhengrong, a senior official with the State Council's Internet Affairs Bureau, this week defended the censorship as 'common international practice' and denied that anyone was imprisoned solely for expressing opinions online.
Yet China has used evidence from postings on websites in the conviction of several dissidents in recent years. Amnesty last year said it believed that 54 people were imprisoned in China after they were convicted of providing illegal information online.
Dissidents and a press freedom group this month accused Yahoo of providing information that helped a Chinese court to convict an online democracy activist of 'inciting subversion.'
Yahoo provided details of two email accounts used by Li Zhi, who was sentenced to eight years in prison in 2003, according to a statement of appeal by Li's lawyer, Zhang Sizhi.
Rights groups also blamed Microsoft last December for closing the website of popular Chinese blogger Zhao Jing, who had criticized the government under his online name of Michael Anti.
The government tries to keep content on sensitive political and social issues broadly in line with the Party's ideology. It is most worried by attempts to question its authority or organize opposition movements via the internet.
Many global leaders in computer hardware and software have provided more crucial elements to build China's firewall, but their less visible presence has helped them to avoid the kind of outcries that have greeted Google's and Yahoo's recent actions.
US researcher Ethan Gutmann has written several articles detailing the development of 'Policenet' software for the Chinese police by US-based Cisco Systems in 2002.
Cisco was more recently involved in helping China's Public Security Ministry to build the 'Golden Shield' firewall, according to the company's own Chinese website. <!--page-->
As online marketing and advertising mushroom, the global firms are helping thousands of Chinese technicians, censors, chatroom monitors and internet police to build a tougher, more sophisticated firewall.
Tens of thousands of smaller internet cafes have been closed, with the government favouring large chains that can be relied upon to monitor and control online activity.
In a possible glimpse of the future, the southern economic powerhouse of Shenzhen recently introduced a constant reminder of police surveillance into the city's virtual world.
Jingjing and Chacha, two smiling male and female cartoon figures, sound like they could be cuddly pandas.
But they appear on computer screens to 'remind the online population to be conscious of safe and healthy use of the internet [and] self-regulate their online behaviour,' state media said.
The uniformed Jingjing and Chacha float astride surfboard-like keyboards, graphically blocking the tools of online communication.© 2006 dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur