Internet users in China were finally able to access the search engine Google Thursday after being blocked for nearly two weeks, apparently by their government.
However, AltaVista, another Internet search engine, remained inaccessible in China on Thursday. No reason was given for why the two services were being treated differently.
The blockade of the two Web sites, first noticed on Aug. 31, had prompted outrage by a wide array of human rights groups and some Western businesses. Most believed that Chinese authorities were trying to prevent citizens from gaining access to anti-communist information prior to a big Communist Party meeting in November.
In the early days of Google's blockade, Internet users were simply unable to access the search engine, as if it were overloaded with traffic. Later, they were redirected to a variety of Chinese search engines.
Depending on where they were logging on from, users were sent to Web sites such as www.cj888.com, a search engine operated by Beijing University, and www.online.sh.cn, otherwise known as Shanghai Hotline, operated by China Telecom.
Cindy McCaffrey, a spokeswoman for Google in Mountain View, said her company had been in contact with Chinese authorities to get their help in lifting the blockade. She refused to provide details about those discussions or even say that China's government was responsible for the disruption in service.
Xiao Qiang, executive director for Human Rights in China, an advocacy group in New York and Hong Kong, described the end of Google's blocking as an "extraordinary event." He believes the protests over the Web site's accessibility were larger than the Chinese government had anticipated.
"They realized that the backfire was more than they could handle," Xiao said.
Western business executives in China had criticized the blockade as harmful to commerce. They said it limited access to useful information and could put a damper on China's efforts to develop a bigger technology industry.
"I would suppose that there are a lot of pressures to keep these things open, not just from dissidents, but business," said Carole Samdup, a coordinator for Rights and Democracy, a human rights group in Montreal that has followed China's Internet surveillance program.
In fact, the Chinese government frequently cracks down on Web sites it believes contain harmful information and then unblocks them without explanation. Web sites that are often banned include human rights groups, pornography, religious groups and Western news sources.
Cracking down on search engines is believed to be a relatively new step by the Chinese government if it is behind the latest disruptions in service. One possible reason is how effective search engines are in locating information and their ability to search with Chinese characters.
Search engines can easily provide links to thousands of Web sites on a single prohibited topic. Many of the Web sites may be so small that the Chinese government had not thought or had time to block them.
A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Washington refused to comment about the blockade of Google and AltaVista. He recommended contacting a spokesman for the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, who did not return a phone call.
McCaffrey, from Google, said her company is getting mixed messages from Chinese Internet users that indicate some blocking may still be in place. It's unclear whether the blocking is simply of previously banned links or new ones.
Judith Schwartz, a spokeswoman for AltaVista, in Palo Alto, said her company is still trying to get its Web site running in China. She said her company has contacted the Chinese consulate in San Francisco but has yet to get a response.
"We are trying to follow up on leads with people in the government, and we're looking into legal avenues we can pursue," Schwartz said.
Her company's other search site, Raging.com, is not being blocked, however. In any case, she said that AltaVista has been blocked temporarily in the past in China and that it has been returned to service.
Schwartz stopped short of blaming the Chinese government.
"We are just saying it's blocked and that there could be a lot of reasons," Schwartz said.