Saturday, November 10, 2012

Why a blanket ban of Google will not happen

Internet Access
Internet Access (Photo credit: whurleyvision)
China's leadership is gathering in Beijing for the meeting of the Communist Party and that typically means internet censorship is turned a notch higher. Filters work at full speed, and internet speed is even lower than normal. It is not only heavy filtering; in my time in Shanghai during high-profile gatherings, internet speed for visiting delegations, including journalists, had to be guaranteed, often at the expense of residents and regular companies, who suffered from lower capacity. That might still be the case for the poor citizens of Beijing.

In this sensitive climate, where everybody is a bit itchy, you find a fertile ground for hoaxes. Last week the first hoax was that 'somebody' had been messing around with the twitter accounts of foreign correspondents in China. Journalists discovered they had to reset their pass words after getting a warning from Twitter suggestion possible malicious use of their accounts. In this case it proved to be a problem of Twitter itself, who had mistakenly reset the pass words of 20 million accounts worldwide. Foreign correspondents in China gave their own twist to the event, and it took a few hours to discovered they shared a problem with millions elsewhere in the world.

Second hype was the supposed blanket ban on Google, initially reported by Greatfire.org. They actually suggested China was heading for a full closure of the internet, not only limted to Google:
Many VPNs and other circumvention tools have been working poorly or not at all in the last few days. The free iPhone app OpenDoor is still working, though it has also suffered glitches recently. Another method of accessing Google Search is to use one of their other country versions such as http://www.google.co.uk https://www.google.co.uk orhttp://www.google.ca https://www.google.ca. These may also be blocked of course.
Many media took the story for granted and copy-pasted the story. (At the bottom you find a nice selection of media reports on this issue.)

I was suspicious from the start. I got emails and even had a Google Hangouts without any problems. Nobody from my contacts in China reported they were having other problems in stead of a slow internet connection. Of course, in China you regularly have problems with your internet, but nothing suggested a blanket ban of Google, VPN's or a combination of both.
A day later Greatfire.org reported the Google blocked was over, and offered a few explanations for the hype they caused. One option they did not mention: there might have been no blockade at all. If there has been a blockade, it was at least not noticed by many. At their website, Greatfire speculates a bit on the reasons for the blockade nobody else noticed.
There are good reasons, why such a blockade would never last very long. During my time in China I learned that Google, VPN's and proxies were not only needed for the foreign community. Large sections of the Chinese government depends on those tools, so they can monitor what is going on. Some services are blocked, like Twitter and YouTube, since China is offering domestic services that work of better for Chinese users. But a blanket ban of crucial services? That would be big news if it would be true.
Also Chinese journalists would at their first working day get a VPN (in my days actually developed by the Falun Gong), because they needed access to blocked websites too. With that experience as background, I tend to find every story about a blanket ban on China's internet highly suspicious.

While it is certain, filtering of the internet is in full swing during tense times, few people on the ground in China supported the claim of a blanket ban. So, why would a rumor like this be launched? I have a suspicious nature and would assume here an NGO is looking for funding, and might be a bit less critical just to get some headlines?
You think my theory is too far fetched? If I find enough participants we will hold on short notice a (Yes, Google) Hangout where people can share their experiences from China. If it works out, the YouTube video will appear here, at my profile in Google+. If you want to participate, or host the video at your site, drop me a line. Let me also know what time works best for you.
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