Google joins the great firewall

Andy Newman

The announcement that Internet search engine giant Google has launched a Chinese service that censors access to sites disapproved of by the Chinese government has caused a lot of controversy. For example, the Boston Globe reports: “Google's decision to help China censor searches on the company's brand-new Chinese website is not only a violation of its own righteous-sounding principles, and it's not just an affront to those working to bring international standards of human rights for the Chinese people. No, Google's sellout to Beijing is a threat to every person who ever used Google anywhere in the world. That means all of us.”  There is still a widespread assumption that market mechanisms facilitate free speech, and indeed a fallacious belief that the Internet cannot be censored.


As an example of how this works, googling for the banned religious group Falun Gong from  will provide only listing to government propaganda against the sect. Content based filtering or filtering out specific IP addresses (blocking specific sites) to comply with national laws is not unique. France and Germany both ban access to Nazi web-sites, so for example googling the search string “Nazi”  or  will not bring up the list of race hate sites available from  . However, these restrictions are not easily enforceable because conceptually the Internet itself does not recognise national borders, and fascists in France and Germany can use the American or British versions of the search engines.


What is different about China (and a few other countries such as Saudi Arabia) is that filtering is placed at the national boundaries. This is possible because unlike in the West where the Internet grew out of ad-hoc cooperation between academic and private users, in China the deployment of the infrastructure has been centralised and government led. Control mechanisms are in place at the Internet Service Provider (ISP) servers, the International gateways and elsewhere. In addition the law requires all web based forums and chat rooms to employ a moderator to remove politically sensitive content.


Another thing that is different about China, is that it has one of the world’s worst human rights records, with thousands of political prisoners, and where people are executed for political dissent. The regime in power is the same one that massacred democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.


Yet it has also had a remarkable economic boom, where big dollars can be made, and the Internet companies like Google are keen to get their share. According to a researcher from University of California, Internet usage in China has risen from about 2000 people online in 1993 to over 100 million in the spring of 2005. 12% of all Chinese aged 18 and older (more than 100 million people) say they have used the Internet.


The scale of the censorship is draconian. Researchers from Harvard Law School devised a test engine that could remotely test whether a site was blocked by the Chinese authorities. They used two separate methods, firstly using an international phone connection to a dial up Chinese Internet service provider (ISP), and then seeking to access web-sites; and when that route was blocked they made a direct internet connection: after November 2002 that route was also blocked. The testing showed that a wide variety of information sources including Christian web-sites, US news agencies, as well as sites referring to Tibet and Taiwan were blocked, and most surprisingly sites relating to health issues and education.


Of particular interest is that the Chinese government blocked both Google and Alta-Vista in 2003 while allowing other search engines. The reason being is that both provide a mechanism for by-passing content based filtering. When Google provides a search results list, it is possible to open an image of the site by selecting the “cached” link below the listing: this defeats firewalls that block attempts to access the site itself. Altavista provides the translation tool BabelFish, which can also be used to defeat firewalls. Chinese government pressure has therefore squeezed Google in the world’s largest developing market, which is their incentive to compromise.


According to an article from the South China Morning Post in 2003, there has been widespread collusion and co-operation from major multinationals in China’s censorship and repression. Cisco Internet routers and firewalls helped the Chinese government with e-mail monitoring, Sun has developed a national fingerprint system for the Chinese government, and Nortel developed surveillance capabilities to film everyone travelling on China’s railways which returns the images to the Ministry of Public Security. (Rail is the main form of internal transport in China, so this is a very intrusive form of population monitoring) Nortel has reportedly cooperated with researchers at Tsinghua University to develop surveillance of which sites people access based upon their Shasta Firewall product. In 2005 it was reported how Microsoft blocked bloggers using various terms  including "Taiwan independence," "Dalai Lama," "human rights," "freedom" and "democracy."


Most controversially, Yahoo provided information to the Chinese government that led to the arrest and conviction of a journalist in April 2005. Shi Tao, who worked for the Contemporary Business News in Hunan province, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after sending foreign-based websites the text of an internal Communist Party message warning of the dangers of social unrest resulting from the return of dissidents on the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Reporters Without Borders issued a statement: "We already knew that Yahoo! collaborates enthusiastically with the Chinese regime in questions of censorship, and now we know it is a Chinese police informant as well"


Of course, Google’s collaboration with Chinese censorship is rational from the point of view of their economic self interest. Yet Google have also tried to portray themselves as anti-corporate good guys, and indeed are currently fighting the US government to resist providing information about who searches for what in American jurisdiction.


Whatever happen, Google’s corporate motto of “Do no evil!” has been shown to be worthless. Ethics and business don’t mix.


 More Information:


Google move 'black day' for China (BBC) 


South China Morning Post article:


Yahoo Police Informant 


Filtering in China Research: 


Search Engine watch 


Microsoft censors bloggers,1282,67957,00.html 


Internet Use in China Research 


Market Watch: 


Picture credit:




Jan 2006

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