(AdAgeChina update: As of June 9, 2009, Chinese web surfers report sites like Twitter, Flickr, Bing and Hotmail have been unblocked. - Ed.)
HONG KONG (AdAgeChina.com) -- China's government has pulled the plug on yet another Western website, making Twitter unavailable to most users in mainland China since about 5:15 p.m. local time (0900 GMT) 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 web sites and the internet in the past, near anniversaries or in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics [last August]. 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 vulnerable from the start
Twitter, an internet-based text message service founded five years ago in the U.S., allows users to post updates called "tweets." The site 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. None of the major local Chinese micro-blogging platforms have been affected, including Fanfou.com, Jiwai.de and Zuosa.com.
"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, an online video site.
The government blocked other sites this week, such as Flickr, an online photo sharing service owned by Yahoo, and two Microsoft Corp. applications, the e-mail service Hotmail and Bing, a new flagship search engine that only launched globally this week. It has also lstarted a four-month crackdown on unapproved internet cafes.
But Twitter's shutdown has prompted the most outrage from users in China today, where it took hold almost as quickly as it did in the U.S.
Only a tiny fraction of China's internet users have started using Twitter, and it hasn't been adopted by marketers in China so far, but it has been steadily gaining speed in the world's largest internet market. China had 298 million web surfers at the end of January 2009, including an estimated 70 million bloggers.
Chinese users blanket Twitter with #gfw
"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 2009, 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.
"Hopefully this will just be temporary, unlike the ongoing block of Youtube that's been going on for months now," said Adam Schokora (@ajschokora), manager, digital, China at Edelman in Shanghai.
Ironically, many posts are still coming from users based in the mainland, who are skirting the blocked site today with Twitter applications like Tweetdeck or through proxy sites.
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."
Return to the AdAgeChina home page here