When China pulls the plug on the Internet
On Wednesday night China’s censors temporarily blocked Google and Gmail, an essential part of my communication with friends and family in Australia and used more than 20 million Chinese.
It was perhaps naive and even a little old fashioned of me to rely on just one e-mail account in Beijing. I know that the country’s net nanny is unpredictable and have been watching the escalating feud between the government and the world’s most popular search engine, which is being accused of containing excessive links to pornography.
The outage happened at about 9.30pm. A friend telephoned me and said that Google had been blocked. I tried several times to open Google.com and Gmail but the pages either timed out or I received a message that the connection was interrupted. China-based site Google.cn was also down.
I tweeted that I could not access Google and saw that other people were posting similar messages. Frustrated, I tried to think of any e-mails or news that I was expecting.
There was nothing important or that could not be conveyed on the telephone, but I was unnerved and impatient that I could not access something as simple and as vital as an e-mail account. I had no idea when I could use it again. It was a feeling similar to losing a mobile phone.
“It’s very difficult for people from the West to understand,” a Chinese friend said. “But for us, the internet has been censored from the start, we don’t like it, but we are used to it.”
As the minutes ticked over, “Google” became the most popular search word on Fanfou, the Chinese version of Twitter. Another friend showed me how to get around the firewall and access Gmail from a proxy server. “Don’t worry, there are ways around these things,” she said. “Everytime they block something we just see it as a new challenge.”
As it turned out, the apparent blocking was temporary and services were working again in about two hours. At a regular press briefing yesterday, foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang did not respond to
questions about whether the government was blocking users from Google.
“We have found that the English version of google.com has spread lots of pornographic, lewd and vulgar content, which is in serious violation of Chinese laws and regulations,” Qin said. Authorities summoned representatives of Google.com in China and urged them to remove the content immediately,” AP reported.
The government has been accused of using Google to deflect attention from its controversial 41.7 million yuan ($7.6 million) internet filter Green Dam-Youth Escort. It has instructed manufacturers to
supply the filter software on a disk with every PC sold on the Chinese mainland from July 1.
Chinese officials said the filter is aimed at blocking violent or pornographic material. The software has been strongly criticized for its security, privacy and reliability. Chinese netizens have called for a boycott of the internet on July 1.
Last Friday, officials said they began blocking some Chinese-language search results from Google over concerns that these links contained pornographic content. English-language results were not affected.
Yesterday, the US government called on China to withdraw it’s order that Green Dam be included with all PC packages. In a letter to Chinese officials, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke and Trade
Representative Ron Kirk said the order might violate China’s free-trade commitments and raise security risks, according to media reports.
China has an estimated 300 million internet users. Little is known about China’s cyber police or how they operate. There most common perception is that there are more than 100,000 cyber cops patrolling
the web. They remove “sensitive” material, including political information, pornography and violent images.
Most recently, the censors were in overdrive in the lead-up to the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, which is politely referred to as the “June 4 incident” here. Just days before the anniversary, it blocked twitter, email provider Hotmail, and photo sharing web site Flickr.
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