CEBIT ASIA : Numbers will overwhelm the Great Firewall

The search engine operated by Google Inc. this week apparently became the latest Web site to be blocked by Chinese Internet censors but the ability of authorities to block such sites may not last for much longer, according to a Gartner Inc. analyst.

China’s government routinely blocks access to Web sites that are deemed undesirable. However, the list of blocked sites varies and is not usually a blanket ban on certain types of sites. For example, while the BBC’s Web site could not be accessed from a public dial-up account here Tuesday, other news sites such as those for The Guardian, The New York Times and CNN could all be accessed with no problem. Access to the Google search site has been blocked from here since Sunday.

The Chinese government’s efforts to block access to undesirable sites-collectively known as the Great Firewall of China-have been successful in recent years but will soon be overwhelmed by the sheer number of Internet users in China, said Dion Wiggins, research director at Gartner, speaking to IDG News Service on the sidelines of the ICT Asia Forum here.

“The Chinese government knows that this is not sustainable long-term,” Wiggins said. “They’ve proved it can be done but once it reaches a certain scale the question is whether it is financially viable and the answer is probably not.”

The problem is that China is connected to the Internet via eight international gateways, with about 80 per cent of all Chinese Internet traffic passing through one of these, Wiggins said. Authorities block access to individual Web sites, such as Google’s search engine, by using an IP (Internet Protocol) filter at these gateways, he said.

“Take that to the scale of 200 million Internet users and that’s a significant amount of infrastructure that is required just to filter,” Wiggins said, noting that China could reach that number of Internet users by 2005.

Faced with attempting to filter so much Internet traffic at China’s limited array of Internet gateways, the financial cost for the required hardware and bandwidth would be extremely high, he said.

“It’s not just putting up a hub and a low-end switch and those types of things to filter with, they have to have the high-speed connectors and the high-end processing power and all the other pieces,” Wiggins said. “Once you get to that scale you are spending hundreds of millions of dollars, easily.”

The ICT Asia Forum, which is being held in conjunction with the CeBIT Asia exhibition, lasts through Thursday, Sept. 5.