Information is power these days. The recent blocking of Google and Altavista by the Chinese government has the potential to deprive researchers of information that they might need. But those search sites also have the capacity to bring information to people who aren't in power. Information that the government might not want them to see.
Is the blocking politically motivated? News came out towards the end of last week that visits to Google were being redirected to Chinese search engines. Was the idea to boost ad revenue for those sites, and to try to get Chinese internet visitors to use China-based internet services? Maybe both motivations played a part.
This Washington Post article is the most detailed analysis on the blocking of the engines that I've seen so far. They report that Google was accessible again this morning. One of the interesting aspects of the report was the description of how China's computer network is set up, and how that enables them to have some control over access to sites that Chinese citizens can visit:
China's control over the flow of information owes much to the unique architecture of its computer networks. The Internet is a global web of interlinked computers that swap information, but China's government has limited the places where its networks can link to those in other countries. Only nine such networks are allowed to connect via satellite and undersea cables to the computer systems of the rest of the planet. The rest of China's Internet service providers are dependent on buying wholesale links from one of these giants.An article called The Internet and Power in One-Party East Asian States (pdf) from The Washington Quartery this summer also addresses some of the practices that the Chinese government follows in attempting to control what people see and do with the internet.
Sixty to 80 percent of China's Internet traffic is carried by just one of these large players: ChinaNet, which is operated by the state telephone company, China Telecom. When China's content minders want to shut down access to something, they can easily use one of these major choke points. They simply program the routers -- which function something like railroad switches -- to reject data from certain sites.