Brief Web access in China as Great Firewall falls

By David Pierson
Tuesday, January 5, 2010

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 using the name EFanZh. "I hope nothing gets blocked anymore. I can't take it any longer."

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

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.

The most sweeping effort at Internet control, a government plan to install all computers with filtering software called the Green Dam Youth Escort, was recently 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."

-- Los Angeles Times

© 2010 The Washington Post Company