AltaVista and Google to fight Chinese censorship

Great Firewall of China

ComputerWire: IT Industry Intelligence

AltaVista Co and Google Inc have both seen their web search engines become inaccessible to internet users in China, evidently as part of a censorship initiative in the run-up to the Chinese communist party congress in November,

Kevin Murphy writes

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But AltaVista is offering affected users alternate ways to access its services. The company yesterday told users they could visit raging.com or one of AltaVista's international sites, which offer the same search services but are not blocked.

"People in China cannot access our site," said AltaVista chief marketing officer Fred Bullock. "We contacted the Chinese government [via the consulate in San Francisco] to see if we've been blocked last Friday but we haven't heard anything."

Google has evidently had better luck that AltaVista. VP of corporate marketing Cindy McCaffrey said the company is in talks with representatives of the Chinese government, but has yet to resolve the issue.

AltaVista's Bullock said "less that 5%" of the company's traffic comes from China. Google does not disclose details of its user base, but McCaffrey said that the company has "millions" of users from the country.

"This could turn into a cat and mouse game," Bullock said. He suggested that any moves to block AltaVista domains or IP addresses could result in new AltaVista domain names or IP addresses. But he also suggested it will likely not come to that.

"Generally before politically sensitive events you see a crackdown by the Chinese government," Bullock said, adding that the policy will possibly be relaxed after the November meeting, which is expected herald significant leadership changes in the governing party.

It appears that AltaVista and Google were blocked not for providing links to sites China considers subversive, but because they also provide the means for users to see the content of blocked sites without having to visit the site itself. Other search sites that only provide links have not been blocked.

Google's cache feature allows users to see what a site looked like when it was spidered, without leaving the google.com domain. AltaVista's Babelfish translation service acts as a proxy between the user and a site, and also machine-translates the text into the user's native language, which is a popular feature in China.

China is able to block sites from its citizens because there are a finite number of internet backbones running into the country, and it has control over all of them. Some US-based search sites that have branches in China are believed to have agreed with the government to pull subversive links or content.

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