Roaming the Internet for research is a hit-and-miss process likely to turn up all sorts of documents--some useful, some irrelevant, some potentially libelous. A Net user wanting to learn about, say, Chinese politics can type "Jiang Zemin" into a search engine and unearth hundreds of Web pages with news and strong opinion about the Chinese President.
Just don't try it in China. Beijing is so sensitive to criticism of its leaders and policies that it now blocks access not just to the sites of human rights watchdogs such as Amnesty International, but to entire search engines.
Of course, China's government has been censoring the Net for years. But the true extent of its activities is now clearer than ever, thanks in part to Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain, and a law student, Ben Edelman. The two have developed a program that detects what China's Web cops are blocking. In early September, they found that Beijing had just banned search engines Google and AltaVista. The shutdown has put Google Inc. and AltaVista Co. in a bind, as the U.S. companies struggle to figure out how they can get back into China without creating the perception that they are appeasing Beijing.
Why were they banned? In the runup to the 16th Communist Party National Congress in November, the government wants to control access to information even more closely than usual--especially since the Congress will tackle the thorny issue of who will succeed Jiang as President. Kong Quan, a spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, wouldn't confirm that China has blocked the search engines, but says "all countries believe there is some bad information on the Internet, which should not be spread at will."
While Chinese officials have embraced the Net as a tool for building economic competitiveness and technology capabilities, they don't want the free flow of information to threaten the Communist Party's grip on power. The Net, of course, provides access to information that could do just that. A Google search using Jiang's name quickly turns up a Web page for the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, subtitled "Exposing the Crimes of Jiang Zemin."
No wonder Jiang's government wants to put blinders on its Netizens--something Beijing is getting better at every day. China's censors have installed what critics dub the Great Firewall--a giant filter to restrict what Chinese citizens can read on the Net, not unlike the software that parents use to keep their kids from visiting the Web's less savory neighborhoods. While some tech-savvy dissidents can give the censors the slip, the vast majority of Chinese Net users don't have the knowhow to avoid the government's controls.
China has found some low-tech ways of doing the job, too. After a fire this summer at a Beijing Internet café left 25 people dead, the government shut thousands of Internet cafés nationwide on grounds that they were firetraps. Another tactic is to pressure Net companies operating inside China. Over 100 of them--including Yahoo Inc.'s Chinese portal--have pledged to censor themselves. And it's not unusual for Public Security officers to demand that China-based sites excise offensive material.
That may be one reason foreign search sites were so popular among Chinese Net surfers. Before it was banned, Google had "millions" of users in China, the company says. Google executives have held discussions with Chinese officials but haven't yet reestablished service. AltaVista CEO James Barnett says he won't start screening his site's content to suit the needs of the Chinese government. "Censorship is not consistent with our vision for free global access to information," he says. Still, AltaVista has put out feelers to China "to enter a dialogue to understand what is going on," Barnett says.
Some observers don't think there's much to discuss. If Chinese officials "have to choose between security and economic growth, they are going to choose security," says Nathan Midler, an analyst for IDC in Beijing. For example, although China is determined to develop its tech knowhow and sends tens of thousands to study in the U.S. each year, the Net cops have banned the sites of many top American universities. If authorities find Falun Gong material on a site that uses Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Web address, all of MIT is banned.
For now, at least, the Great Firewall appears to be successfully guarding the Middle Kingdom. And while the newest steps are tied to the Communist Party Congress, don't expect things to loosen up after the meeting is over. "Once China's officials have this kind of power, it's hard to get them to relinquish it," says Duncan Clark, managing director of BDA China Ltd. in Beijing. The cost of censorship, though, may be high, as it keeps many of China's best minds from exploring the world.
By Bruce Einhorn in Hong Kong, with Faith Keenan in Boston and bureau reports