China's Great Wall Against Google And AltaVista

So can people in China get to Google or not? Yes, apparently so. However, there are still reports of trouble when conducting particular searches, which suggest that some selective blocking is happening. Meanwhile, the situation with AltaVista being blocked appears to continue.

At the end of August, reports that people couldn't reach Google from China made headlines. About a week later, the headlines caught up with the fact that access to AltaVista has been blocked. Rather than this happening "after the fact," as I previously reported, both Google and AltaVista appeared to have been closed at the same time. Despite this, the noise was all about Google for about a week.

Access to Google appears to have been restored around September 12, not through anything that Google has done but rather apparently due to the Chinese authorities removing the ban.

"As far as we know, our service is up and running in China. We haven't done anything on our end to change our service in China. We continue to work with Chinese authorities, but I don't have anything specific I can pass along regarding those discussions at this time," said Cindy McCaffrey, Google's vice president of corporate marketing.

Other search engines such as and Teoma haven't appeared to have been blocked. So why single out Google and AltaVista? Both have options that make it possible to view a web page without actually visiting the web page itself. That's a useful way to see a page that has been blocked.

For example, say you are in China and wanted to view the Friends of Falun Gong home page. Search for "falun gong" on Google and there it is, listed at number four. Now let's say China has blocked access to that particular web site, so when you click on the listing, you get nothing. No problem. Instead, click on the "Cached" link that appears under the site's listing in Google, and you'll see a copy of the page that is stored on Google's own servers.

By offering cached links, Google makes many pages that might be banned by the Chinese authorities accessible to those in China. Given this, blocking access to Google itself is necessary to block the copies of all those pages.

AltaVista has no cached copy feature. However, it does have a long-standing translation service called Babelfish. Let's see how you use that to get a banned page. again assuming that you want to view the Friends of Falun Gong home page.

You go to Babelfish and enter the URL into the "Translate a Web page" box. Now you simply choose to "translate" the page from whatever language it ISN'T in into a different language.

For example, the Friends of Falun Gong home page is in English. By pretending it is in a different language and translating into English, no translation will happen, and you'll see a copy of the page. Moreover, since that page will be "hosted" by AltaVista's translation service, rather than the Friends Of Falun Gong, it would get by the Chinese block.

End result? China needs to block AltaVista, because like Google, it makes pages that might be banned accessible to users. Indeed, its translation facility makes any page across the web accessible, not just those that have actually been spidered, as is the case with Google's cached links.

Rightfully, the whole thing seems to have backfired in some interesting ways. For one, it's brought great attention to the blocking being done by the Chinese authorities. More important, people are now working to create all sorts of workarounds to ensure that those in China will have access to information from across the web, as well as to Google and AltaVista. Rather that than solve one or two big problems, the Chinese government seems to have spawned many new ones for itself.



AltaVista Babelfish Translation

Another key feature to the translation tool is that it in addition to being a workaround to see banned pages, it can also translate from English into Chinese.

Google Language Tools & Translation

Like AltaVista, Google has a translation tool that can be used to translate any page from across the web, though Chinese isn't supported.

China Seems to Refine Bid to Restrict Web Access
New York Times, Sept. 14, 2002

It amazes me to see how little distinction is made between search results and pages that the search results lead to. For instance, this article says that people "cannot retrieve all their search results" on Google. In reality, you do seem to get all the results for a query. You simply cannot click through from a search result listing to a particular site that may have been banned by China. That's not a search problem and has nothing to do with the actions against Google over the past two weeks. Instead, the same thing would happen, presumably, if you tried to reach a banned site directly.

Similarly, I saw a web site post where someone pointed out how "biased" Google might be seen as, given that a search for "Bill Clinton" brought up a link to a page about the former president on the US White House web site with this description: "During the administration of William Jefferson Clinton, the US enjoyed more peace and economic well being than at any time in its history." That's not a description that Google has written to present its "official" view of the Clinton presidency. That's a description formed automatically by pulling content of the page that's actually listed. Blame the White House, not Google.

China still blocking some Google links
Reuters, Sept. 13, 2002

Another example here where the "Google blocking" isn't really blocking of Google but instead of specific sites. Those sites would likely be blocked even if you tried to go to them directly, rather than via a search at Google.

Google keywords knock Chinese surfers offline
New Scientist, Sept. 13, 2002

Now here is a search-related twist on blocking Google. Search for certain keywords, and China may block you. My favorite part of the article is this: "It is quite normal with some internet sites that sometimes you can access them, and sometimes you can't," says an official from the Chinese government's information department. "The ministry has received no information about Google being blocked, and we have received no information about a block being lifted." Hmm. Apparently the ministry doesn't bother to check out major news sources such as the BBC or the New York Times, to name only a few that have been running stories.

China Ends Blocking of Google Search Engine, Sept. 12, 2002,2933,62859,00.html

Users in Shanghai and Beijing reported that Google was once again accessible.

AltaVista tries to beat Chinese ban
BBC, Sept. 12, 2002

AltaVista has had no luck contacting the Chinese authorities and mainly seems to be trying to beat the ban by making AltaVista available under the address it used to use for its experimental Raging Search search engine.

China Blocks Web Search Engines
Washington Post, Sept. 12, 2002

Or maybe Google did get blocked just because the Chinese authorities, like many other people, assume that it makes a lot of information available. The reality is that any good search engine probably will bring up an amount of information that would be "shocking to the leadership," as described in this article, which also has a good recap of the recent events.

China Hijacks Google's Domain Name
PC World, Sept. 10, 2002,aid,104813,00.asp

In another twist, the Chinese government apparently redirected those trying to reach Google to other search engines within China.

I CAN get to google from china!, Sept. 9, 2002

Includes a reference saying that while access to Google is allowed, the cached page feature is blocked, which China could do by blocking the particular domain/IP address used to serve those cached copies.

China blocks second search website
BBC, Sept. 6, 2002

Had the BBC actually checked when first reporting on the Google story, they would have discovered that AltaVista had been blocked at the same time as Google, not a week later.

Google: Can The Marcia Brady Of Search Stay Sweet?
The Search Engine Report, Sept. 3, 2002

AltaVista, along with Google, was blocked from the beginning, as I said in this article at the beginning of the month.

Google Weblog

Good place to watch for articles that are Google-specific, such as articles on the China ban and potential workarounds.


A mirror site of Google in the truest sense of the word, in that everything is backwards, which apparently was used by some to get around the Google ban.

China 'blocking Google'
BBC, Sept. 2, 2002

Covers details of Google being blocked and has analyst claims that this is the first time China's blocked a search engine.

I can't reach Google from China, Aug. 31, 2002

People in China raise the alarm that they can't reach Google. Good suggestion that Google's cache feature may be part of the reason it has been banned, given that it might make banned sites accessible to those in China.

Real-Time Testing of Internet Filtering in China

Excellent resource allowing you to test whether a site is blocked in China. Also promising future research into exact keywords now being blocked for searches on Google.

Yahoo Criticized for Curtailing Freedom Online
IDG, Aug. 12, 2002,aid,103865,00.asp

Yahoo apparently has agreed with China to filter or restrict access to banned sites from its Yahoo China site, but such filtering is not taking place on its other editions.