The more time you spend observing the Chinese internet, the more you learn (usually the hard way) not to jump to conclusions until you've triple-checked your facts with people on the ground in more than one location using more than one ISP, and - if possible - waited for a bit to see how things play out.
I'm in London at the moment. On Thursday as I went from conference call to appointment to meeting to dinner to conference call, I kept getting e-mails from people about news reports and blog posts with headlines like "Chinese search engines hijacked" and "Cyberwar: China Declares War on Western Search Engines" Then on Friday morning PC World reported: "China Not Redirecting Search-Engine Traffic to Baidu," and I even got an e-mail from somebody in Shanghai posting to a list-serv for people studying the Chinese Internet insisting that the whole hijacking story was a hoax.
The truth, it appears, lies in a murky grey area - as is often the case with China stories. But there is no doubt that at certain points in time, on certain Internet Service Providers in at least some Chinese cities, real people were redirected to Baidu when they tried to access some foreign search engines. We know this happened because some Chinese bloggers documented it, and other people e-mailed screenshots around. We also know that the redirection must have been fairly short-lived, and may not have happened at all on some ISPs in some cities, because many people in China who I asked about it said all was normal when they tried accessing Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft search engines (as long as they didn't try to search politically sensitive terms, which for China is the normal state of things).
But it definitely happened. In the wee hours of Thursday October 18th, "icebenny" provided these screenshot from Shanghai, showing how Google Blogsearch was first redirected to the government's official anti-pornography site... then after he refreshed a few times it redirected to Baidu:
I've received screenshots from others showing the same thing. Here is a screenshot I received from one blogger showing how Microsoft's Live.com search page was also redirected to the government anti-porn site:
Blogger "Ning" wrote later that morning Beijing time that every time he tried to search anything on live.com, he would be redirected to Baidu's search error page, and when he tried searching on yahoo.com, or blogsearch.google.cn, he would be directed to Baidu's home page. In a blog post titled "Baidu raped yahoo?" "jifforever" posted a screen-capture animation demonstrating how his yahoo.com search got redirected to Baidu. "Awflasher" showed the results of his test when he pinged blogsearch.google.com. He expressed concern that such DNS hijacking behavior is bad for the development of China's internet. The comments sections on all of these blog posts showed that many people had observed similar things.
What actually happened?? One Chinese friend offered this theory: "Just guess: the DNS hijacking was done by the ISP like China Telecom or Netcom either deliberately or accidentally. In some circumstances it leads to the Baidu page because it was set up as the default search engine." Another wrote: "most of the geekers think it is [caused] by a upgrade of GFW." (What he means there is that the ISP's periodically "tweak" and "upgrade" the filtering mechanism that block various overseas websites. Sometimes when a tweak is in progress, strange things happen for brief periods of time.) It would appear that Danny Sullivan's theory that the hijacking was a response to Bush's meeting with the Dalai Lama may have been a bit prematurely formulated. But he is right to be on the defensive against those who now claim his entire report was false.
Meanwhile, while I'm on the subject of confirming and debunking various things, it is definitely true based on many consistent reports that YouTube is blocked in China. One verbal report I received yesterday from somebody that YouTube was blocked in Hong Kong, however, is definitely not true.