The search engines of two of the most popular Web portals on the mainland have been blocked in a sign of intensified internet censorship, with millions of users expected to be affected.
Sina and Sohu are the latest victims of Beijing's increasing control of the internet for having failed to filter certain keywords deemed politically harmful, industry sources in Beijing said yesterday.
'Chief editors of Web portals were summoned to the State Council Information Office in the morning and Sina and Sohu were ordered to shut down their search engines after they failed an on-the-spot censorship test,' one of the sources said. The two portals had been given three days to 'rectify their mistakes', the source said.
The Sina and Sohu search engines have been out of service since noon yesterday, with the search pages carrying a message that the sites were undergoing upgrades. Other services of the two portals were unaffected.
The two companies declined to elaborate on the shutdown or provide statistics about their users.
Sohu spokeswoman Zhang Xin insisted that it was normal to have a system upgrade. Her counterpart in Sina, Yan Hongyan, did not offer an explanation. 'I don't know yet what has happened and why the search engine is out of service,' she said.
Both companies said last night the services would not resume for two or three days.
China had more than 97 million search engine users in 2004, and this will exceed 100 million this year, according to a recent report by iResearch. Sina and Sohu were far behind Baidu, Google and Yahoo, which combined accounted for more than 90 per cent of the market share of search engines, the report said.
Western internet firms including Microsoft and Yahoo have long been criticised for putting the quest for profits ahead of ethics and agreeing to censor websites and content.
Internet providers operating in the mainland are required to filter content by blocking hundreds of keywords or by denying access to websites considered politically sensitive by the authorities.
According to the industry source, illegal keywords, which are regularly updated by the authorities, cover content deemed 'subversive', such as references to Tibet, Taiwanese independence, the Falun Gong and the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
But a recently updated list of illegal keywords shows that references to former president Jiang Zemin , the Cultural Revolution, the Bingdian Weekly, which was once suspended for controversial articles, and rights activists Gao Zhisheng and Guo Feixiong have also been banned.