Facebook Has Another Problem in China

Is China's Great Firewall Using an Odd New Tactic Against Facebook?

By Published on .

Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

China's Great Firewall already prevents most people on the mainland from accessing Facebook. This week, China's internet has been behaving bizarrely, leading to questions about whether Chinese internet regulators are tackling Facebook from an unusual new angle.

Starting this weekend, people on the mainland suddenly couldn't navigate to many common websites, including gaming sites and news outlets like CNN.com and dailymail.co.uk. Instead they were redirected to totally unrelated pages -- a site for open-source software called wpkg.org and a Polish couple's travel blog, ptraveler.com. (This happened several times to Ad Age's reporter in Shanghai, though the situation seemed to improve Tuesday.)

What does that have to do with Facebook? The redirection occurs when people try to reach websites that use a Facebook Connect button, which lets them log on using their Facebook account. A Facebook spokeswoman based in Asia said the company was investigating the situation.

It's not exactly clear what's going on or who is behind the disruptions. But GreatFire.org, a non-profit that keeps tabs on Chinese internet censorship and helps people get around China's online blockages, believes it's the Great Firewall. "They're trying to block the Facebook Connect button," GreatFire.org's Percy Alpha wrote in an email. (Because of the sensitivity of their work, GreatFire.org staff use pseudonyms. GreatFire.org was recently targeted in an attack believed to come from a new Chinese censorship tool dubbed the Great Cannon and described in an exhaustive report by a coalition of university researchers.)

Mr. Alpha said the Facebook Connect issue was a case of domain name system poisoning, causing "connect.facebook.net" to redirect not to the correct IP address, but to a set of other IP addresses, including wpkg.org. That site "is just a random victim that happened to be selected," Mr. Alpha wrote. The Cyberspace Administration of China could not be reached for comment.

Mikko Hypponen, the chief research officer at online security company F-Secure Corp., said it's clear someone was tampering with the traffic, though it's not clear who. He wondered whether a mistake was made somewhere, because "the outcome makes no sense." For example, why would the Great Firewall "be rerouting to these websites that have no connection to anything?" he asked.

To bypass the internet issues, people inside the mainland can use virtual private networks, or VPNs, a common way of circumnavigating China's firewall, which blocks Twitter, YouTube and many Google services. (A few people reported experiencing the problem even when using VPNs, however.) Some Reddit users suggested solutions via ad-blocking software.

Whatever is going on, it's another twist in Facebook's complicated story in China. Mark Zuckerberg has made it clear he'd like to return to the market and reach China's 649 million internet users. Last year, he revealed he had learned Chinese, giving a talk in Mandarin at a university in Beijing. And when China's top internet regulator visited Facebook's headquarters, Mr. Zuckerberg had a copy of the Chinese president's book on his desk.

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