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Ars Technica

Chinese openness to Wikipedia fleeting at best

April 6, 2008, Ars Technica

Many Chinese Internet users have found themselves suddenly being able to access the English version of Wikipedia over the last several days, in addition to blogs hosted at Blogspot. Both sites were previously blocked by the Chinese government, although like most sites that have been filtered by the Great Firewall, both have been accessible within China off and on for some time now. Although users are pleased with being able to access the sites once again, they are not optimistic that the change will stick. And worst of all, the move may be China's tip of the hat to the International Olympic Committees request for an open Internet.

Checks with WebSitePule's Great Firewall tester show that en.wikipedia.org and most topics contained within it are indeed accessible from Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. Pages for topics that China looks down upon, however, are not so accessible—this includes the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, the Falun Gong, and pornography. It appears as if the general Wikipedia page for Tibet is accessible from those cities, although a page about the 2008 Tibetan unrest seems to be throwing mixed results.

Blogs hosted at Blogspot (like Fake Steve Jobs and PostSecret) also appear accessible from Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, but posts made to danwei.org (a site about the Chinese media) point out that some users in other areas aren't seeing the same results. One user in Chengdu said that his ISP has unblocked English Wikipedia but not Blogspot, for example. This shouldn't be too surprising—researchers at the University of California at Davis and the University of New Mexico recently found that because the Great Firewall is not actually a single content filter, it can be quite erratic in its enforcement of the government's rules.

The move may be related to pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to open up the Internet during the 2009 Olympic Games in Beijing. The IOC said last week that it had "discussed and insisted" with the Chinese government that foreign journalists be able to operate freely during the games, which means that they'll need to be able to access pages on the Internet wherever they may be. The IOC remained optimistic that China would comply, however. "On all issues where that's been concerned they've lived up to the (host city) agreement so we don't see any reason why they'd step back from that now," IOC coordination commission vice chairman Kevan Gosper said.

If the recent change in access to Wikipedia and Blogspot is related to the IOC's requirements, though, then the lift is incomplete. The IOC requires completely unfettered access to the 'Net, not mostly open access with several cherry-picked topics carefully omitted. It seems more likely that the change is just another of China's fairly regular flip-flops on these two sites—for example, Blogspot has been blocked and unblocked at least five times over the last two years, and our Chinese readers indicate that the same typically goes for Wikipedia. One day it's off, the next day it's on, and the day after that, it could be off again.

In fact, Chinese don't seem to be particularly optimistic about the change for that reason. "I just care about what's the exact time when it will be blocked again," an anonymous user wrote on danwei about Wikipedia access.