Try to access Google Inc.'s search engine from inside China and there's a good chance you'll instead be sent to Tianwang Search, a search engine operated by China's prestigious Peking University.
Internet users looking to reach Google from inside China are being rerouted to Tianwang, and several other sites like it, after Internet service providers in China hijacked the domain name for the Mountain View, California, Internet search company.
The frequency with which Chinese users have been rerouted to other sites depends on the Internet service provider (ISP) and the location where the user is accessing the Internet, indicating that traffic to Google is not being rerouted at a national level, according to Duncan Clark, managing director at telecommunication market research company BDA China Ltd.
Domain names and URLs (Uniform Resource Locators) are matched to IP addresses using Domain Name System (DNS) software. When an Internet user types www.google.com, or any other URL, into a browser, a query is sent to the ISP's name server which returns an IP address for the site. ISPs in Beijing and Shanghai have apparently altered those addresses, redirecting traffic to Chinese search sites, Clark said.
"It's not possible for someone else to do this," he said.
The Chinese government has sought to block access to undesirable Web sites using IP (Internet Protocol) filters since commercial Internet access first became available here in 1995. Search engines Google and Altavista Co. are the two latest Web sites to find themselves blocked in China. But this is the first time censors have hijacked a domain name and rerouted traffic to another Web site, Clark said.
Not everyone in China is happy that Internet traffic meant for Google has been rerouted elsewhere. "This is not what Tianwang Search hoped to see," the search engine said in a message posted on its Web site.
China frequently clamps down on foreign media in the run-up to politically sensitive dates and events. With Chinese President Jiang Zemin expected to hand power to a successor at the upcoming Communist Party congress, Internet censors may be trying to tighten control over information available on the Internet.
"It is in violation of the universal approach, changing the DNS system. When you type in a URL, from anywhere in the world, you expect to get to that address," said Bruce Tonkin, chief technology officer at Melbourne IT Ltd. and chair of the Names Council of the Domain Name Supporting Organization at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
For Chinese users and Google alike, there may be little available recourse, however. "China has not signed any agreement (not to tinker with the DNS system inside China). No government has. There is no legislation, no mechanism to stop them," Tonkin said.
(David Legard, in Cairns, Australia, contributed to this report.)