Reporters without Borders has written to the US authorities to notify them of the growing threat to free expression on the Internet posed by China and to draw their attention to the importance of the search engines Google and Yahoo! to Chinese Internet-users. "We consider that the two American Internet giants should refuse to bend to Beijing’s wishes and refrain from censoring their search tools," said the organisation.
Yahoo! has been censoring its Chinese-language search-engine for several years and rival firm Google, which recently took a share in Baidu, a Chinese search-engine that filters a user’s findings, seems ready to go the same way. In their efforts to conquer the Chinese market, the two firms are "making compromises that directly threaten freedom of expression," Reporters Without Borders said.
Some combined key-word searches, such as "Free Tibet," do not display any results. For others, only official sites appear. The top results of a search for ’Falungong" produces only sites critical of the Chinese spiritual movement in line with the regime’s position. The same search using a non-censored search-engine turns up material supporting Falungong and about the government’s repression of its followers.
Google has so far refused to censor its search-engine and access to it was blocked for a week in September 2002 by the Chinese authorities, who are currently obliged to filter its search results by themselves, which is more difficult and less effective.
Google now seems to have changed tack. In June this year, it acquired a substantial share in one of China’s biggest search-engines, Baidu, which carefully filters out all "subversive" content. When Google was blocked in 2002, Chinese Internet users were redirected to baidu.com. A search in Baidu for "Huang Qi," a cyber-dissident imprisoned for posting criticism of the government online, produced: "This document contains no data," even though hundreds of articles in Chinese have been posted about him.
A search for "independence Taiwan" shows only sites critical of the island’s government, while Google’s Chinese version (www.google.com/intl/zh-CN), which is not censored, comes up with pro-Taiwan sites.
Censorship of search-engines is a core issue for freedom of expression. The latest survey by the official China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) says 80% of Chinese Internet users get online data by using them. Access to some, such as Altavista, have already been blocked inside China.
The U.S. firm Cisco Systems has sold several thousand routers - costing more than 16,000 euros each - to enable the regime to build an online spying system and the firm’s engineers have helped set it to spot "subversive" key-words in messages. The system also enables police to know who has looked at banned sites or sent "dangerous" e-mails.
For more on Internet censorship in China, see "The Internet under Surveillance 2004" from Reporters Without Borders, on its website, www.internet.rsf.org. A total of 61 Internet users are currently in prison in China for posting online criticism of their government.