Table of Contents

Comment Icon0 Sending and receiving emails makes up the most popular activity on the Internet in the United States, followed closely by the use of search engines to find information on the Internet (“Pew Daily Internet Activities,” 2008). This is also evident from how search engines Yahoo! and Google are the top visited websites in English (“Alexa Top Sites in English,” 2008). In the case of China, a 2007 CNNIC survey report showed that 44.7% of Internet users used the search engine several times a day, indicating a reliance on search engines as part of their daily online activities. Furthermore, it reported that 74.5% of users preferred using baidu.com, while 14.3% preferred Google.com (CNNIC, 2007).

Comment Icon0 The first instance of Chinese government intervention on search engines happened in early September 2002 (BBC News, 2002). Popular search engine Google was blocked in China, and requests within the country for Google’s domain name (google.com) were redirected to Chinese search engines including Openfind, Globepage, chinaren.com, search.online.sh.cn, fm365.com, and a search system at Peking University (Berkman Center, 2002). By September 11, Google.com was reachable again, though searches appeared restricted. Berkman Center researchers conducted tests on China’s network and discovered the PRC’s new implementation of keyword filters on the Google search engine. More disturbingly, as one of the keyword included “cache”, this made Google cache no longer accessible to the Chinese netizens. To understand the PRC’s interest in denying access to this feature, Google cache archives copies of online content and has traditionally been useful for viewing websites that were inaccessible. As such, Google cache was a popular means of circumventing Internet censorship to view webpages that were blocked or shut down by the government. Demonstrating the inconsistency in filtering search engine, other Internet search engines such as Yahoo! and Gigablast do not seem to have their caching functionality blocked. Chinese netizens could still use the syntax “search/cache?p=” for a cache request to Yahoo!, while using the syntax “get?q=” for a cache request to the Gigablast search engine. All this happened beyond Google’s control, and the fact that other search engines’ cache function was not filtered suggested that China had deliberately targeted Google for filtering (OpenNet Initiative, 2004).

Comment Icon0 A more convoluted case occurred in July 2004, when Google as well as Yahoo! were accused by Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) as being complicit to China’s censorship practices. ONI researchers verified RSF’s claims by testing various sensitive keywords on both their domestic Chinese search engines, Baidu.com and Yisou.com, and they detected that for both these search engines, three things were apparent (Bambauer et al., 2005):

  • Comment Icon0
  • The search engines filter by keyword;
  • The search engines de-list certain results; and
  • Certain keyword searches are sometimes blocked by China’s gateway filters.

Comment Icon0 In addition, researchers learned that when a search request is made for a banned keyword, the filtering system would terminate the user’s connection to the destination server. Rather than receiving a “404 error: File not found”, the connection is simply dropped and further attempts to reconnect will also be dropped if the previous connection was terminated as a result of a request that contains banned keywords (OpenNet Initiative, 2004). An anonymous network manager of a telecom company revealed that a few companies owned by Harbin Institute of Technology operate the massive “information gateways” that reside on China’s international interfaces. These gateways actually monitor the information flow, and send out fake TCP packages to cut the TCP connections as soon as specific keywords are detected (Xiao, 2006). Since this disconnection would carry on for prolonged periods, this effect might have been intended to punish a persistent user by de-motivating further subversive use of China’s Internet search engines.

Comment Icon0 Facing a similar fate as the rest of online media, search engines are also filtered on a case-by-case basis. Significant events have been intentionally “erased” off relevant search results in order to preserve what the Chinese government deems as “social harmony”. Besides the infamous online censorship of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, the other major incident to follow was the SARS epidemic of 2003. Hidden off search engines for as long as possible to supposedly avoid scaring away foreign investment, it was only when a military doctor revealed that Chinese officials were hiding the SARS epidemic that the government finally allowed the media to start talking about it. Ironically, ever since that incident, the government swore that it would not repeat the same mistake, but this has not been the case. Reminiscent of the Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese police opened fire on demonstrators in Dongzhou village in the summer of 2005. A search conducted one year later for “Dongzhou” on Yahoo.com yielded 371,000 results on the protest, while a search for the same keyword at cn.yahoo.com (Yahoo! China) yielded a mere 106,000 results, none of which contained any information relating to the shootings (Human Rights Watch, 2006).

Comment Icon0 Reminiscent of the SARS epidemic, a similar public health incident was covered up in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in July 2008. Some reporters were already aware of the melamine-tainted milk powder from Sanlu, but were warned prior not to report about it. Fu Jianfeng, an editor at the Southern Weekend, publicized this dilemma on his blog after the scandal became public in September: “Actually, our reporter He Feng had received the information at the end of July that more than 20 babies were hospitalized for kidney stones in Tongji Hospital, Wuhan city, Hubei province, as a result of consuming the tainted Sanlu milk powder. But for reasons that everybody now knows, we were not able to investigate the case at that time because harmony was needed everywhere. As a news editor, I was deeply concerned because I sensed that this was going to be a huge public health catastrophe. But I could not send any reporters to investigate. Therefore, I harbored a deep sense of guilt and defeat at the time” (Morillon, 2008). As evidence of government cover-up, Internet and political researcher Nart Villeneuve spotted “milk powder” in the list of banned keywords extracted from China’s TOM-Skype VoIP application (2008). In addition, some Chinese netizens have been accusing popular Chinese search engine Baidu of censoring its search results. A netizen at DoNews pointed out that Baidu yielded more results than Google when searching for “Wenchuan + earthquake” but fewer when searching for “Sanlu + melamine”. This was especially contradictory, since a Chinese search engine would fall behind a Western search engine when it came to finding news about an incident as major as the Sanlu tainted milk powder (Morillon, 2008).

Comment Icon0 As part of China’s modernization process, the Chinese have been opening their doors to economic development by attracting international investment with their huge domestic market and abundance of cheap labor. While most Western observers believed that such massive economic progress would inevitably lead to improvements in human rights, recent years have shown that such rights are still barely existent in China (Human Rights Watch, 2006). Economic expansion still dominates the Chinese agenda, with the rule of law typically purposed to serve the fiscal as well as political cause of the PRC. Under similar sentiment, most of these American companies operating in China have their investments dependent on their right to do business in the PRC. While some of these Western companies might oppose the idea of censorship, industrial competition ensures little room but to comply with the needs of the incumbent Chinese government. In response to why most Internet companies appear so ready to comply with the Chinese government, most Western corporations have taken a similar stance as Yahoo! Being the first major U.S. Internet content company to enter the China market by rolling out a Chinese-language search engine and establishing a Beijing office in 1999 (Yahoo! Press Release, 1999), Yahoo! executives have simply and consistently stated that there is no alternative other than not doing business in China at all. In May 2006, Yahoo! CEO Terry Semel added the perspective that providing the censored and politically compromised services still benefits the Chinese people more than if Yahoo! were to be absent from China altogether (Anderson, 2006).

Chapter 6.1.7 – Filtering Search Engines

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