“Ah s**t, look’s like Twitter has been GFWed in China :(,” read the post by MissXu on Tech Crunch on Tuesday.
In fact, according to Canadian anti-Internet censorship researchers, the clamp down extends to other social networking sites such as YouTube, Flickr, Live.com, MSN, Hotmail, Blogger and even Microsoft’s newly released search engine Bing. Some of the sites have been censored for at least several weeks already.
Twitter’s censorship came barely 42 hours before the 20th anniversary of the June 4th Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. On June 4, 1989, Chinese troops and tanks broke up a peaceful pro-democracy demonstration in Beijing by over a million students, workers, intellectuals and civil servants. The demonstration actually began two months before but had spread to more than 300 hundred Chinese cities. Hundreds were reported killed, thousands were arrested and at least 200 are believed to be still held in captivity.
The block on Twitter has prevented people based in mainland China from communicating to the outside world Ron Deibert, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and head of Citizen Lab, an Internet research team headquartered at the Munk Centre for International Studies at U of T. In March this year, the Citizen Lab uncovered GhostNet – a Chinese computer spy network believed to be eavesdropping various foreign ministries, embassies, international organizations and news media.
“We have received reports from our researchers on the ground and in other locations that Twitter and other social networking sites have been either filtered or blocked,” said Deibert.
Initial reports, Deibert said, indicate that video sharing site YouTube and photo sharing site Flickr have been filtered and MSN and Twitter were blocked.
The block on Twitter appears to be based on a URL keyword filter, according to some reports. For instance Googling for Twitter.com resets the Internet connection.
People who tried to access Twitter in China yesterday received the following message on their computer screen: “The connection to the server was reset while the page was loading. The network like was interrupted while negotiation a connection. Please try again.”
The sheer number of Internet users and access points in China prevents a complete Internet shutdown but also makes it difficult to determine what is precisely happening at any given moment, he said: “China is a very large country with a huge Internet population. Authorities can’t just flick a switch and turn everything off because there are numerous access points to the Internet.”
He said it was unfortunate because Citizen Lab had recently started using Twitter to communicate with onsite researchers in China. “We also recently began using Twitter to distribute nodes to tools that will allow people circumvent Internet censorship.”
Citizen Lab has developed the Psiphon, a suite of tools that allows online content producers to push content through firewalls and other network-based impediments. The tool has been used to break through Internet censorship by repressive governments.
Deibert said people seeking information about China can also use Heredict, a project of the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University. Heredict uses crowd sourcing to learn about experiences of users around the globe. Essentially the site aggregates reports of what is being said online about a particular phenomenon giving the user “a better sense of potential reasons why a site is inaccessible.”
Internet users who are experiencing censorship can also go to Sesawe.net , an international organization working to support uncensored Internet, to obtain tools that will circumvent filters and firewalls, Deibert said.
“There’s nothing surprising about the move to block the social sites. The move is consistent with the control and censorship that’s been documented in China, ” the Citizen Lab head said.
Other regimes in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and Iran engage in online filtering and censorship, he said.
As of press time the block on Twitter on China has reportedly been pushed up to the top three spot on Twitter’s most popular topic list. Number one was Air France (Flight 447 which crashed over the Atlantic Ocean en route from Brazil to France) followed by “goodsex”.
The Twitter blockage category spawned a tremendous amount of angry posts which included invective such as “f**k GFW,” said Deibert. “Ironically, Twitter filtering must have kicked in and automatically filtered the posts.”
Incidents such as repressive governments conducting Internet filtering and online snooping, should serve as a wake up call for government agencies to develop policies to prevent such activities, according to Janice Stein, head of the Munk Centre.
“We believe Canada should play a critical if not leading role in this initiative since we have the expertise in the area,” she said.
The Munk Centre, however, is nothing mulling anything as “combative, confrontational or negative such as sanctions.”
Rather, Stein believes, Canada can foster better cooperation by initiative an international forum on cyber security that will also tackle the issue of fostering freer Internet use.