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The New York Times

Apple iTunes Store Is Blocked in China, Internet Users Say

August 22, 2008, The New York Times

Internet users in China have been complaining this week that they cannot access Apple’s iTunes Store. The start of the problems coincided with an announcement from an advocacy group which said that around 40 Olympic athletes had downloaded a pro-Tibet benefit album that was also carried on iTunes.

The IDG News Service reported Friday that the Amazon.com page for the “Songs for Tibet” album, which includes 20 songs from artists like Sting, Dave Matthews and Moby, could not be reached within China. Michael Wohl, executive director of the Art of Peace Foundation, which produced the album, cited comments on YouTube which said a video promoting the album might also be inaccessible in China.

Mr. Wohl said that while he had no proof, it appeared that the Chinese government had blocked iTunes and the Amazon and YouTube links using the “Great Firewall of China,” as the government’s Internet control mechanisms are known. Expatriate iTunes users in China also concluded on Apple’s customer service forums that the government was blocking the site.

There is no iTunes store aimed at the Chinese market, so those affected are mostly foreigners trying to reach versions of the store intended for the United States and Canada. A site that says it checks the availability of specific Internet addresses from China reported that both the YouTube and Amazon pages in question could not be accessed in either Shanghai or Beijing.

An Apple spokesman would not comment on the problem Thursday night. Chinese authorities either would not comment or had no information, The Associated Press reported.

The “Songs for Tibet” album was released exclusively on iTunes on Aug. 5, just before the opening of the Beijing Olympics. The Art of Peace Foundation, in conjunction with groups like the International Campaign for Tibet, also offered free downloads of the album to Olympic athletes through a special site unaffiliated with iTunes.

The International Campaign for Tibet then announced on Monday that over 40 Olympians had taken up the offer to download the album. Chinese users began reporting problems with iTunes that same day.

The Chinese authorities have tried to suppress protests in support of Tibet, which it views as a renegade province. They began criticizing the album even before Monday’s announcement. A government-run Web site, China.org.cn, reported on Aug. 8 that “Songs for Tibet” had “ignited strong indignation” in the country.

The site also said some Chinese citizens were planning to boycott Apple products, including the iPhone, and wanted to ban the artists featured on the album from entering the country.

Mr. Wohl said the article incorrectly said the album advocated Tibetan independence.

“We’re only asking for freedom of expression in Tibet,” he said. “We’re trying to celebrate a culture. The only way you could have a problem with that is if you’re trying to eradicate that culture.”

Either way, the controversy could hurt Apple’s efforts to expand in China. The company recently opened its first store in Beijing, but does not yet have an agreement with a wireless carrier to sell the iPhone in China.

David Wolf, a consultant based in Beijing, wrote in his blog that Apple was using a “bi-polar approach” by featuring “Songs for Tibet.”

“Apple — and its shareholders — must recognize that its own actions are sabotaging its efforts to build a market in China right as those efforts are showing fruit,” Mr. Wolf wrote.

But Apple was far from the only retailer carrying the album. Scores of others, including Wal-Mart and Best Buy, were selling it, Mr. Wohl noted.

While the effect this issue might have on Apple is unknown, Mr. Wohl sees a lot of upside for his group and other backers of Tibet.

“The more they continue to block this,” he said, “the more we’re raising awareness of what’s going on over there.”