Press freedom advocates are condemning China's move to block access to the English-language news site of the popular Web search engine, Google.
Google came under criticism from press freedom advocates months ago when it established its Chinese-language edition and agreed not to list news stories the Chinese government deemed unacceptable.
Advocates accused the U.S. company of self-censorship for the sake of maintaining a stake in China's Internet market, which some experts say is growing at a rate of about 50 percent a year.
While Google's Chinese-language news Web site did not list banned stories, Chinese Internet users often could view prohibited material by going through Google's English-language site.
There they could at least glimpse the headlines of blocked stories. In recent days, that changed. Authorities started blocking Google's English-language news site. The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders says the move was meant to steer Chinese Internet users to Google's restricted Chinese-language edition.
Benjamin Edelman, a doctoral student at Harvard University in the United States who has done extensive research on China's blocking of Web sites, says China's government realizes how crucial the Internet is to business and growth, and had to come up with a more sophisticated method of blocking.
"It's sophisticated in a way that really matters," he said. "In an era when China had to choose all of Google or none of Google, China would have to choose all of Google over the alternative. But now, they have a third possibility, a middle road. They can block just some of Google. They can block the part of Google that is most objectionable to them while retaining the part of Google in which Google self-censors the Chinese news right out of there."
China censors or restricts access to most foreign news operations - in print, television and on the Internet. It routinely restricts Internet access to a variety of foreign news sites, including the VOA site.
The government also blocks access to sites it considers pornographic, violent or subversive. Reporters Without Borders' Julien Pain says Google is not the first Internet company to restrict content in the face of Chinese government pressure. He says others, including Yahoo, also do it. Mr. Pain says Google's decision further establishes a precedent that could endanger freedom of expression elsewhere.
"Once they have done it in China, they'd probably do it every where in the world," said Julien Pain. "The governments of Iran, Saudi Arabia, of Cuba, could ask Google to tailor a special search engine for them."
Officials at Google have not commented on China's blocking of their English-language news website. Months ago, Google said its decision to restrict its China edition was a difficult one that was based on the company's commitment to provide users with as much information as possible.