Google was gagged. The Chinese government recently blocked access to the popular Internet search engine for several days — before suddenly reversing course for reasons still unclear — in an attempt to promote a “healthy atmosphere” in the runup to the November meeting of the Chinese leadership. While Beijing has long tried to control its citizens’ access to information, the Internet has complicated that task immeasurably. Moreover, the Chinese government — or any government for that matter — cannot hope to seal off parts of the Internet without threatening to derail its economy.

It is estimated that there are about 45 million Internet users in China. This is an explosive expansion, considering that only about 100,000 people were online in China in 1997. According to official statistics, there were 3,700 Chinese Web sites in July 1998. Two years later, that figure had reached more than 27,000. With the number of Internet users expected to double every six months, a recent study concludes that China could have the world’s biggest online population in three years.

That poses real problems for a government that demands its citizens view the world through a very narrow prism. Since China first went online in 1995, access has been allowed only through official servers, whose administrators block access to material the government deems “harmful.” That is a flexible and expansive concept, notoriously capricious. In the past, it has been used to screen out foreign news providers and others that the government considers subversive, such as prodemocracy and other dissident and human rights groups, and Taiwanese newspapers.

Recently, it was revealed that Google, a search engine that gets about 150 million hits a day in China, had been blocked. The move revealed a growing sophistication in China’s monitoring of the Internet. This is the first time that a search engine has been blocked. In addition, there are reports that access is now being denied on the basis of key words rather than entire sites. For example, The Japan Times might be available to Chinese readers, but stories about China might not. The government has not commented on the action, but an article posted on a Chinese Web portal says Google was blocked because searches could bring up links to pornography, content associated with the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong and other information deemed harmful to national security.

Officials at Google discussed the moves with the Chinese government before the site was unblocked. There are concerns that Google might have attempted to accommodate Beijing, a move that could undermine its reputation. There are good reasons to worry. As part of its attempt to control Net access, the Chinese government has imposed new Internet regulations and required 130 major Web portals, including Yahoo! Inc., to take a self-censorship pledge in March. As a result, Yahoo!’s search engine only yields a sliver of the results that Google’s does. Moreover, it makes the company appear to be a willing accomplice in the Chinese government’s efforts to control the thoughts of its citizens. Sadly, that is already happening. A number of Western companies have assisted the Chinese government in its attempts to monitor online access from Internet cafes throughout the country.

The irony is that the attempts to regulate content and control access will eventually fail. There are a number of ways individuals can elude the censor, and many Net users trade tips and information on the Internet. The easiest is to use “proxy servers,” computers that exist outside of China, to access blocked sites. Software that searches for proxy server Web sites and e-mail encryption software are widely available in CDs distributed with Chinese computer magazines. Users can also establish accounts outside of China, through such free services as Yahoo! or Hotmail.

The most important reason the effort is doomed is that constraints on the free flow of information clash with the Chinese leadership’s paramount goal of economic development. Businesses that hope to compete in the international economy must have regular, reliable and instant access to the outside world. Impediments will not be tolerated. To give one telling example, it is reported that Sony has decided to move production of some video-recording units back to Japan from China because of an additional one week delay in clearing customs in China. That sensitivity to margins will increase in the years to come. A stranglehold on the Internet — the primary communications medium for business — will not be welcome.

At the same time, economic development will mean that more people have their own access to the Internet. Currently, many users visit Internet cafes, which affords the government a convenient bottleneck. As the Chinese people become more affluent, they will have their own computers, complicating the monitors’ task. It is an unpleasant thought for a government accustomed to dictating what its citizens think; it is a reality to which Beijing, and other like-minded governments, will have to adapt.

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