The Google.com search engine has been blocked in most parts of China, as Beijing steps up its efforts to restrict the public's access to information, a Paris-based media watchdog said.
Internet users in many major Chinese cities have had difficulty connecting to the uncensored international version of Google for the past week, Reporters Without Borders said in a statement received in Beijing yesterday.
"Google has just definitively joined the club of Western companies that comply with online censorship in China," Reporters Without Borders said.
"It is deplorable that Chinese Internet users are forced to wage a technological war against censorship in order to access banned content," it said.
Random attempts to access google.com in Beijing appeared to confirm that the international version of the search engine had indeed been made unavailable, while the censored Chinese-language version, Google.cn, was still accessible.
Google.cn was launched in January amid much controversy because the company agreed to censor its service according to the wishes of China's propaganda chiefs.
A Beijing-based Google spokeswoman said on Tuesday the company was looking into the apparent effort to block its most widely used search engine, but declined any other comment.
"We launched an investigation last week," spokeswoman Cui Jin said. "As long as we don't have more certain information, it would be irresponsible for us to comment more."
Reporters Without Borders also said the Chinese authorities had largely managed to neutralize software designed to sidestep censorship since late last month.
Software such as Dynapass, Ultrasurf, Freegate and Garden Networks is normally used to gain access to news and information that is blocked by the firewall isolating China from the rest of the worldwide Web.
Bill Xia, the US-based exile who created Dynapass, said the jamming of these programs had reached "an unprecedented level" and he was convinced the authorities were deploying considerable resources to achieve it.
Beijing authorities have also revoked the licenses of six Web sites and temporarily shut down 12 others during a 90-day city-wide crackdown, state press reported.
Over 858,000 yuan (US$107,000) in fines have been collected from 35 Web sites and Internet service providers who allegedly violated Beijing regulations, the Beijing Evening News reported.
Names of the Web sites and the details of their Internet content were not given.