BEIJING (Reuters) - Chinese Internet users trying to access the blocked search engine Google are being routed to an array of similar sites in China, the latest sign of an escalating media clampdown ahead of November's Communist Party congress.
Hijacked attempts to log on to the immensely popular web tool, already blocked for more than a week, triggered a flurry of criticism in Chinese chatrooms and biting disclaimers from beneficiary sites.
Some analysts called the move unprecedented and wondered what the next step in Beijing's Internet crackdown might be.
"This is a serious escalation," said Michael Robinson, chief technical officer of Beijing-based Clarity Data Systems.
"They're not acting as administrators. They're acting as hackers," he said. "They're impersonating authority that they don't in fact actually have."
The routings -- to at least half a dozen different search sites, many virtual no-names and few of them major market players -- began over the weekend, analysts said.
The move appeared ordered by public security authorities and implemented locally via Internet servers run by the country's fixed-line phone giant China Telecom, they said.
They said users of the smaller China Netcom's services were unaffected in Beijing and Shanghai. Those users' attempts to access Google confronted the same blocked page as before.
Some users in Beijing and Shanghai were redirected to Peking University's no-frills search site Tianwang, the little known cj888.com and the American-invested Baidu.com, among others. Users in Guangzhou were rerouted to the local portal 21cn.com.
"It's like going to buy Coca-Cola and they say 'Well, you can't have Coke but here's grapefruit juice'," said another Beijing-based analyst.
Information Industry and Internet officials had no comment on the move. Sites gaining exposure from it denied any role in the reroutings. "It is definitely not done by us," said a Baidu official. "We have no idea where it comes from.
The Tianwang home page carried a more sour disclaimer. "This is not what the Tianwang search would hope to see," it said.
China's media censors have matched broad proclamations with targeted action in the run-up to the Party congress, which is expected to see sweeping leadership changes and important new policy directives.
Analysts said Beijing might be trying to placate its Internet users amid condemnations from right groups abroad and users at home over the blocks on Google and a second search engine, Altavista.
"Rather than the absolute block that they had, it's trying to be helpful," said Duncan Clark, head of Beijing-based tech consultancy BDA China Ltd. "But actually it could be worse."
The routings backfired with customers. "So damned shameless," said one Web chatroom member.
Clark warned of legal risks. "Ultimately it's messing with the fundamentals of URLS," he said, referring to Web address codes. "I guess some URLs are created more equally than others."
Analysts said the government could be preparing for a prolonged blackout on Google through the November congress, which holds a cache of content from Web sites already blocked in China.
Commercial interests were but a fringe benefit, they said.
"The local telecom officials are implementing it and those guys do have local interests in content sites," said Clark. "But they would only profit in terms of traffic."
Clark said the move would drive more Web users to look for proxy sites in China, which has already blocked proxies anonymizer.com and safeweb.com.
But the government might catch on, he said.
"To make this rerouting thing more effective, it would also need to block proxies."
Tuesday September 10, 12:14 PM
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