On June 4, 2009 during the 20th Anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the government actually shut down access to Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and Flickr. Then Hotmail blipped off the radar, followed by Bing, Microsoft's latest search engine. Repression was rampant as a Great Firewall went up to prevent Chinese webizens from mourning online in their respective virtual worlds. Is Big Brother alive and well in China?
More than 400 blogs were also taken offline or delisted from the popular Chinese search engine Baidu in the lead-up to the anniversary. A number of foreign blog sites hosted by free service providers at Blogspot and Wordpress were also blocked.
Never before has China ordered such a widespread blackout of online services. Although before the anniversary date, it is known that China employs thousands of Net nannies to police the Internet. And even the wrong word or phrase tapped into your search engine could get your average Internet user onto a surveillance alert or potential criminal investigation.
China's history of policing the Internet goes back to 2005. While initially appearing light-hearted, an Internet security campaign features animated beat cops that actually pop up on a user's browser. Then they walk, bike or drive across the screen warning Chinese citizens to stay away from illegal Internet content. The male and female virtual officers, designed for the ministry by Sohu (one of China’s web portals) also offers a text warning to web surfers to abide by the law or else!
So what is China's Big Brother really afraid of? Well, as we have all witnessed in the free world, the feudal societies of Twitter and Facebook have great power when the people want to be heard. The virtual armies that form and forge viewpoints on government is a very democratic precept online.So for a government with an Internet population of 300 million users to be exposed in such a fashion was apparently too much for a communistic regime to put their heads around. A government that rules by fear can apparently become fearful themselves. Other countries like Iran have also attempted to block sites like Facebook in the past, but these bans have ultimately been lifted based on popular opposition.
Xiaonei.com (similar to Facebook) and considered to be the most powerful university student social network service in Mainland China was accessible from Hong Kong - although some users reported seeing alerts that the site was under maintenance as well. Sources in the company said it was in the process of moving Xiaonei.com’s server from Tianjin to Beijing, and that the service interruptions could be expected on the anniversary date.
While the Tiananmen Square (or 6/4 as it is referred to by the Chinese) might be a day the Chinese government regrets and wants to forget, banning social networks only drew more attention to this horrific event. History has shown that tragedies the magnitude of the Holocaust (whichTiananmen Square is often compared to) do not get erased from our collective psyches. Like slavery, it takes 100s of years for these types of memories to resolve themselves.
So social networks... keep broadcasting the ills of society and mankind's capability for brutality, and maybe some day... bullies like Big Brother will no longer exist!
UPDATE: June 8 - I just learned that after China’s blockade of the social networks and search engines mentioned in this blog, Chinese authorities want to further their governmental control by ordering that all PCs sold in the country, starting July 1, must include software that blocks certain websites.
According to the Chinese government, which hasn't yet gone public with the announcement, but has warned PC makers about the deadline, this measure’s aim is to protect the Chinese from harmful content, primarily pornography. But since this same government has blocked sites like Twitter, YouTube, MySpace and Bing, it’s quite possible that this move is adding another layer of censorship over the existing Great Firewall.
I will keep you posted as this story continues to unfold...