Chinese Government Blocks Twitter

Run-up to 20th Anniversary of Tiananmen Square Blamed

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HONG KONG (AdAge.com) -- China's government has pulled the plug on yet another Western website, making Twitter unavailable to most users in mainland China since about 5 p.m. local time (5 a.m. in New York) and infuriating the local Twitterverse, which is already finding ways around the block.

The government has not publicly stated why it is blocking the site and doesn't usually comment on the actions of China's so-called net nanny, but it is widely assumed the government wanted to limit Twitter use before an important and controversial event -- the 20th anniversary of the government crackdown on student protests in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

The authorities are also nervous about the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China coming up on Oct. 1, 2009.

"We've seen crackdowns on social-media websites and the internet in the past, near anniversaries or in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics [in August 2008]. After the event has passed, they tend to ease off," said Thomas Crampton (@ThomasCrampton), Hong Kong-based director of digital influence, Asia-Pacific, at Ogilvy & Mather.

Twitter, an internet-based microblogging service that allows users to post updates called "tweets," has seemed vulnerable in China from the start. Tweets cannot exceed 140 characters, limiting messages in most Western languages to just a few words, but 140 Chinese characters gives Twitter users the ability to post a full-blown news article.

Also, Twitter's format makes it easy to spread messages quickly and easily and potentially mobilize people in public areas within minutes, a scenario that terrifies China's Communist Party.

Blocking Twitter "will drive traffic towards domestically-run services [that don't allow] free-wheeling discussions like those that can take place on an open platform like Twitter," Mr. Crampton said.

"The only thing that really surprises me is that it took them this long," said Kaiser Kuo (@kaiserkuo), a Beijing-based China tech watcher and a consultant for Youku.com, a video website.

The government blocked other sites this week, such as Flickr, a photo sharing service owned by Yahoo, and two Microsoft Corp. applications, the e-mail service Hotmail and Bing, a flagship search engine that launched globally only this week. It has also started a four-month crackdown on unapproved internet cafes.

But the decision to block Twitter has prompted the most outrage from users in China today, where it took hold almost as quickly as in the U.S. Only a tiny fraction of China's internet users have started using Twitter, and while it hasn't been adopted by marketers in China so far, it has been steadily gaining speed in the word's largest internet market. China had 298 million web surfers at the end of January 2009, including an estimated 70 million bloggers.

"It's experiencing a boom in popularity," said Oli D. (@djodcouk), a Shanghai-based blogger with one of the largest Twitter followings in China who declined to give his full name for this story.

Minutes after the site was blocked in China, indignant and often angry users tweeted posts with trend topics such as #gfw (which stands for "great firewall of China") and even #fuckgfw.

Censors have blocked other Western sites in China, including YouTube in early March, presumably for videos on the site related to Tibet, another sensitive topic in China. Blogspot, Tumblr, Livejournal, Xanga, Wordpress, Friendfeed and Microsoft's Live.com are also blocked.

Ironically, many posts are still coming from users based in the mainland who are skirting the blocked site today with Twitter applications like Tweetdeck.

Such apps still work for many users, "which shows you just how effective blocks like this really are. There's always a way for anyone with a modicum of tech savvy to get around it," Mr. Kuo said. "It's an aggravation, sure, but it's not the end of the world -- or even of Twittering in China."

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