China cuts off internet access in bid to exert control

As the Chinese government continues to tighten its control over the internet, the country became an island for roughly an hour on Thursday, with all access to websites beyond its borders cut off.

China cuts off internet access in bid to exert control

Several Chinese internet companies said they could not comment on what had happened, because it was related to “government affairs” and the “great firewall”.  Photo: ALAMY

Chinese users found themselves unable to connect to all foreign websites, while users in Hong Kong and the United States reported in turn that they could not access Chinese sites.

The world’s largest internet population, of some 500 million people, had been walled in.

Users in several Chinese provinces, including Guangdong, Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Hubei, complained they were unable to connect to the outside world.

Initially, Chinese commentators linked the problems to maintenance work, perhaps stemming from the aftermath of the 8.5 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Sumatra.

However, analysts said that if the network had been down, domestic Chinese sites would also have been affected, rather than just foreign sites

A number of internet companies in China, when contacted, pointed instead to the Great Firewall – the censorship shield that keeps unwanted websites, like Facebook and Twitter – out of China.“No one is quite sure what happened,” said one senior employee at a Chinese internet company. “It seems that everyone’s best guess is that they were upgrading the Great Firewall and something glitched during the process. My own theory is that they were testing the great switch to turn off the internet.”One post on Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, from an internet company in Shandong province, said the Chinese government was “regulating” the “gateway function” of China’s “international portals”.

“China Telecom issues a notice that for the forthcoming Communist Party 18th Party Congress, telecom and mobile’s international portal will have gateway function regulation,” said the post, which was quickly censored. “All clients of telecoms and mobile will not be able to access international websites normally during the time. The affected lines include servers in many foreign regions, such as the United States, the UK, Korea, Europe, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The regulation may last from three to 24 hours.”

Several Chinese internet companies said they could not comment on what had happened, because it was related to “government affairs” and the “great firewall”. The Chinese government has never admitted that the firewall exists and instead claims that China has an entirely free internet.

In recent weeks, alarmed at the power of the internet to rapidly spread information, the government has launched a campaign to restore its control. Sina and Tencent, two of China’s internet giants, have been punished for allowing users to comment freely on Weibo.

At some Chinese state newspapers, journalists have reportedly been warned that they could be detained on criminal charges if they spread sensitive information over the internet.

On Thursday, Xinhua, the official news agency, reported that 42 websites had been shut down and 210,000 posts had been deleted as part of the campaign against rumours. However, given the scale of China’s internet population, this result may equal little more than a normal day’s work for the country’s army of censors.

A new law states that all 300 million Weibo users should register their real names with the companies. In reality, many users have not done so, and report still being able to use the service. The flow of rumours has continued unabated, especially in recent weeks, with political turmoil at the top of the party prompting a swirl of comments.

At the weekend, China Central Television, the official broadcaster, said that the internet had “provided space for some people to make up and spread rumours. As long as it is easy to click a mouse, some people can slander others, destroy stability, or even endanger the security of the state”.

In response, China internet users began circulating spoof figures of tyrants, including Colonel Gaddafi and Kim Jong-il, jumping on chairs in fright after spotting computer mice.

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