September 9, 2002 11:52 AM PDT

China blocks search engine AltaVista

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The Chinese government has blocked access to search engine AltaVista as part of its campaign to prevent citizens from accessing material deemed unsuitable and threatening to the ruling Communist Party.

The move is the latest to target Web search engines in China in recent months, coming just days after the government blocked access to U.S-based search engine Google. Meanwhile, Yahoo's China-based affiliate agreed in March to voluntarily block access to certain sites in accordance with local regulations. In a recent sweep, Yahoo China pulled links to the outlawed Falun Gong sect.

Search engines are hardly alone in falling afoul of the Chinese government's Internet policies. China regularly restricts Internet usage by prohibiting access to certain Web sites it views as subversive to reigning politics.

"Just how much they tighten the controls reflects how sensitive they are to the presence of the Internet at that moment--it follows the pulses of politics around the country," said Jonathan Zittrain, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School.

The Chinese government has thwarted thousands of sites, said Zittrain, who in collaboration with a colleague created a tool called Real-Time Testing of Internet Filtering in China. The tool tests whether a Web site is filtered in China. Among other pages blocked by the government are USCourts.gov--the home page of the federal judiciary--Playboy.com, Sex.com, MIT.edu, NPR.org, CNN and the BBC's Voice of America. Zittrain plans to publish a full report on censored sites in coming weeks.

James Barnett, CEO of AltaVista, said that the company plans to make its search results available through other avenues accessible to Chinese citizens, including the site Raging.com. Barnett said he became aware of minor censorship from China in recent months but the site has been blocked more broadly in the last week. He estimated that less than 5 percent of the company's audience originates in China.

"It's the principle that's more important here," Barnett said. "This is very unfortunate. We believe free and open access to information is critical to the global community."

AltaVista has contacted the Chinese consulate in the United States but has yet to hear back. The company plans to try to contact the Chinese government and convince them to cease blocking the site.

Google also has yet to make any progress with the government, according to Google spokeswoman Cindy McCaffrey.

Chinese citizens attempting to get around the censorship can find workarounds, however, including a Google mirror site, at Elgoog, which is not filtered. The site is written backward and can be read with a mirror. By typing in search queries backward, people can access links from the genuine Google database.

Benjamin Stein, "chief executive geek" of the Google Mirror site, said in an e-mail interview that the site is a spoof but added that it has quite a few visitors from China. "We have gotten a number of letters from Chinese citizens thanking us for the site (and requesting us to un-mirror it!)."

 

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