China experiences brief Internet freedom as Great Firewall falls

Published: Tuesday, January 5, 2010 at 9:48 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 5, 2010 at 9:48 a.m.

BEIJING — Web users reported an outage of China's strict Internet controls, known as the Great Firewall, for several hours Monday morning, allowing them brief access to banned Web sites such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Cautious excitement spread on some social-networking platforms as hope flared that Internet freedoms suddenly were being expanded after months of intensifying scrutiny.

"It's finally unblocked, reasons unknown," wrote a blogger named EFanZh. "I hope nothing gets blocked anymore. I can't take it any longer."

But by the time many woke up, strict restrictions had returned. Error messages once again flashed across computer screens for sites blocked by the nation's censorship filter.

"It seemed just like a dream," said Michael Anti, a social critic and one of hundreds who tweeted about the development on Twitter.

Rumors abounded that the outage was due to maintenance work administered by Internet provider China Unicom. Others believed it had something to do with the heavy snow that blanketed northern China over the weekend.

China Unicom did not respond to requests for an interview, neither did Chinese officials overseeing online security. It was unclear if all of China experienced the outage or just some regions.

Jeremy Goldkorn, whose Web site has been blocked since July, said banned sites are periodically accessible from location to location, such as a university. But rarely do so many high-profile sites suddenly become available, he said.

For many, the relaxing of controls would seem an unlikely development at a time when Chinese authorities have been ramping up censorship of the Web.

Primary in this push is a crackdown on pornography that has been gaining momentum for months. But critics claim that effort is just a cover for tightening controls on the world's largest Internet community.

Authorities announced last week that 5,400 people were arrested last year for crimes related to online porn, though they did not say how many were charged.

Hundreds of Web sites have been shut down, including file-sharing destinations for pirated movies and music, as well as personal blogs.

One government ministry released a pronouncement last month that local press interpreted to mean that foreign Web sites may one day have to register with the government before being allowed inside the Great Firewall.

As part of a new decree to screen out smut, individuals have been banned from registering personal Web sites using China's national domain, .cn. The address is now reserved for government entities and registered businesses.

In China's restive Xinjiang province, Internet access has been blocked since July when deadly ethnic riots erupted in the capital of Urumqi. Residents in the region can only access two sites now, both run by state media.

However, the most sweeping controls last year, a government plan to install all computers with filtering software called the Green Dam Youth Escort, was shelved indefinitely in response to widespread criticism.

"The government isn't showing any signs of giving up on censorship," said Jonathan Zittrain, founder of Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "If anything, they're innovating and exploring other avenues.", a censorship-tracking Web site run by the Berkman Center, reported 1,466 blocked Web sites in China in the last year.

The Internet in China is already one of the world's most heavily policed. Government agents troll online forums for information and pose as ordinary users to sway opinion.

Although the government can't fully stamp out undesired sites, experts say the goal is to make access to politically sensitive pages inconvenient enough to null any meaningful influence.

That has largely meant using the firewall to filter out sensitive topics such as the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre, Tibetan independence and the outlawed spiritual group Falun Gong.

Western social-networking sites have been stymied as officials fear they'll galvanize groups that could disrupt social order. YouTube, Twitter and Facebook were all blacklisted starting last year.

It is unclear what sort of effect the firewall's outage had Monday morning, believed to be between midnight and 3:30 a.m. Most of the commentary online was found on Twitter, whose users generally know how to scale the firewall using proxy servers. They are not representative of the mainstream Chinese online community, whom censors are most concerned with.

Chen Nan, a webmaster in Beijing for an IT Web site, said he became aware of the outage late at night when he saw the spike in activity on Twitter. He tested it himself and was surprised to see the firewall down for blocked sites such as Blogger and Picasa. Though he enjoyed the jaunt, he was ultimately too pessimistic to believe the sudden brush with freedom would last.

He said "there's no way" sensitive sites would be allowed in China.

"But within these few hours, there were a few bricks missing from the Great Firewall, and we were able to see the outside world through these holes."

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