Wikipedia blocked again in China

Friday, November 17, 2006

The easing of a ban on the popular online encyclopedia in China was short-lived.

Barely a week after Wikipedia viewers were able to access the Web site -- after a year-long ban -- they reported Friday that it was blocked again in several parts of China.

Chinese Web surfers and free-speech advocates had earlier welcomed the apparent lifting of a ban on the English and Chinese versions of the site that provides free information written and edited by its users, although skeptics had voiced fears the end of the ban would be temporary.

"It was great news for us," said Yuan Mingli, 33, a software engineer in Shanghai who has contributed articles on computer science and Chinese historical figures to the site. "China's Internet users are not different from other countries' users. Wikipedia is a very important source of information for us."

It wasn't immediately clear if Wikipedia was inaccessible due to technical glitches or because government censors had blocked the site again. The Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Information Industry did not immediately respond when contacted for comment Friday.

Beijing blocked access to the English and Chinese versions of Wikipedia in October last year, apparently out of concern about entries touching on the country's sensitive spots -- Tibet, Taiwan and other topics.

China's communist government has waged a battle to control the anarchic Internet and filter the information Chinese can get. Police employ an array of measures, from sophisticated filters and detection software that hunts for sensitive words to having officers monitor Web traffic.As a result, surfing the Web in China is a very different experience from that in much of the world. Because almost anyone can add to and edit listings in Wikipedia, the site is famously freewheeling, addressing sensitive topics that pose a challenge to Beijing's control.

The site's English version was unblocked last month, while the Chinese version became available late last week, until Friday when Net users such as Yuan said both versions could not be accessed.

"There are widespread reports of Wikipedia being inaccessible again in China," said Andrew Lih, a Beijing-based researcher who is writing a book about Wikipedia.

Censors tease Internet users
Lih said Web users trying to access blocked sites often receive a technical-error message instead of one that says the Web site is being blocked.

Lih said earlier the number of new registered users on the Chinese version of Wikipedia had jumped in the past week to an average of 1,200-1,300 a day -- more than a threefold increase from 300-400 a day before the ban was lifted on or around November 9.

"And that's just the number of registered users. The number of people in China who are reading Wikipedia but don't register is much, much higher," Lih said.

Experts had earlier expressed skepticism over the Chinese government's unannounced lifting of the ban on the popular site, saying it could be only temporary.

"It's great to see Wikipedia unblocked, though in China an unblocking is probationary: it might be blocked again in a day, a week, or a month," Jonathan Zittrain, professor of Internet governance and regulation at Oxford University, said earlier.

Wikipedia contributors such as Yuan said they recalled at least two instances before the ban when censors teased Internet users by sporadically blocking access to the site for weeks at a time.

"In the context of a politically censored environment ... Wikipedia becomes ... also a place to engage, to debate, to share information and to spread information otherwise being forbidden," said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley.

"I am almost certain that many government 'undesired' information and discussion will appear in this platform again and that's why I am still concerned about its future in China," Xiao said.

It was also not clear why Beijing had earlier allowed access to the site.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Thursday she had no information on the issue, but added China "actively supports and promotes the development of the Internet."

"We manage the Internet in accordance with our laws and regulations," Jiang said.

Since its launch in 2001, Wikipedia has become a gigantic presence on the Web and expanded into dozens of other languages.

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