Porn (and More!) Unblocked, but Why?

Facebook gets blocked, and you can’t open a broadsheet without tripping over an in-depth report. But China seems to be in the middle of series of dramatic unblockings, and no one is saying a word! In the past week, a large number of foreign pornography sites, as well as some Chinese ones, have become accessible from China without a VPN. And according to Michael Anti, it’s not just porn sites anymore. He tweeted several hours ago that Vimeo (a video sharing service), HootSuite (a Twitter client), bit.ly, and Xmarks have all been unblocked, too.

UPDATE: The Voice of America News site has also been unblocked.

I find the media, especially the Western media, silence on this increasingly baffling. Unblocking a well-known and widely used Twitter client essentially amounts to unblocking Twitter itself, if I understand the way the service works correctly ((Full disclosure: I am not a HootSuite user)). Youtube remains blocked, but the fact that another major Western video sharing site (Vimeo) has been unblocked also seems significant. And, of course, the unblocking of a number of pornographic websites is fascinating given that the immorality and social instability supposedly caused by porn is the foundation of the government’s case for censoring the internet in the first place.

Oddly, no one seems to know why this is true. Certainly, I don’t have any more insight than the next person, so let’s take a look at some of the potential explanations that have been tossed around:

  • It’s a mistake. This one is looking less likely with each day it goes on, unchanged. But it’s still the easiest explanation for a rather baffling change that seems to fly in the face of years of propaganda from the Chinese government.
  • It’s a trap! In all seriousness, some people have suggested that it’s a sting operation, although I can’t imagine how that could possibly work. Are they going to arrest everyone who has watched porn or used Twitter in the past week?
  • It’s a response to the school killings/Foxconn suicides. Some people have suggested that, in short, the government is starting to fear horny men, and hopes they’ll be placated by YouPorn, and, uh, Twitter. Perhaps these online pursuits can serve as a forum for venting the frustration that was previously manifesting in suicides and homicides.
  • It’s related to a certain upcoming anniversary. This one doesn’t make a lot of sense to me either, but certainly, weird stuff does happen on the Chinese internet in early June. It’s just that usually more sites are being blocked, not less.
  • From a tweet by Isaac Mao: maybe it’s a response to critics in the WTO.

Obviously, none of these are particularly convincing, but very few alternative ideas have been offered up thus far. What’s really going on here? How long will it last? Your guess is a good as ours, but regardless of how long it lasts, I can’t believe no one is reporting on it (that I’ve seen).

If you discover other websites that are unblocked, please report them in the comments!

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0 thoughts on “Porn (and More!) Unblocked, but Why?”

  1. Possibly (and just possibly) it’s about freeing up resources. The GFW may have a huge capacity, both in hardware and human power, but it’s not infinite. It may well be that things are just being re-prioritized.

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  2. My Theory 1:
    The GFW obviously would work off a centralised database of all restricted urls and what not. So as an IT professional a theory that could be plausible is that this centralised database has somehow become partially corrupted (damaged). So anything that is in that damaged part cannot be correctly read and/or blocked.

    Now also my theory on debunking my own theory is that because the GFW is so large and has to deal with such a large scale of requests, there would obviously be load balancing mechanisms in place so that individual servers do not crash under the tremendous load. This means there would be hundreds of servers each with a copy of the exact same list. So if one server did happen to go down there would be others already there with the same information to take over it’s job, meaning no real loss in the end.

    My Theory 2:
    Which is could be more plausible than the 1st because of the scale of the GFW is that the system works somewhat similar to DNS in that certain types of addresses/rules are stored on certain servers. While other addresses/rules are stored on servers higher up in the hierarchy or on another branch of servers. If this is the case then there could be networking failure between a certain branch of servers or servers higher up in the hierarchy. Meaning anything from the failure point downwards is inaccessible

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  3. The one I never understood, dropbox, is still blocked.

    ITGuy, you are thinking too much. My experience in China is that technology is not well understood and manpower still dominates. For example, they could use software to recognise exposed flesh and block images automatically; but they don’t, they rely on a warehouse full of people vetting web pages.

    Whilst the government has created the legislation, it is a little vague as to what it exactly means. I think 9 different departments all have policies on Internet access. All uncoordinated of course.

    The actual application of these restrictions is carried out by the ISPs, who I guess are partially liable for people accessing the wrong site. My home and office both have different ISPs and as a result, I get a different Internet from each place.

    The GFW is definitely distributed and I would guess unconnected. I would go so far as to say that each province has it’s own firewall. This assumption is based on a few things.

    People in different parts of China have different black lists – I know this is technically feasible from a single firewall, but I think not likely in China as it is the more challenging route.

    The second point is mobile phone carriers. Certainly in my part of China, the phone company is where you get your Internet from. There are no other options. And, as you might know, each phone company is set up as a separate enterprise on a per province basis. You can see this when you go their websites; you must go to the right website for your province, as each one is slightly different.

    And lastly, I’ve been told you can call up your local ISP to get sites unblocked. You need to have a business reason, not a personal one. I’ve not heard of anyone successfully doing this, only that this option exists. I’m told it is related to admins blocked sites by IP address and inadvertently blocking useful sites at the same time.

    Okay – this doesn’t explain why some sites have become unblocked. And, a disclaimer, I can’t guarantee anything I’ve said. But hopefully it helps us uncover how this GFW thing works.

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  4. There could be another possible (but not very likely) explanation: that someone finally realized the blockade (ouch, what an unfortunate choice of a word on my part) isn’t really working that well, and that there is an experiment underway to gradually fade away the GFW. If they’ll ever choose to try openness, I’d guess this is exactly how it would be done: experimenting while staying under the radar. Very Deng Xiaoping.

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  5. tell me why the word mohawk is blocked on Google? GFW is f**cking lame. I have to use my VPN to get any good results of anything on any search engine.

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  6. @ Rachel: That is a great point…it’s altogether too optimistic to have occurred to me, but perhaps that is what’s going on here. I think you’re right in saying that if they were going to stop blocking stuff, this is exactly how they would do it…

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  7. I’m inclined to think it was a mistake, but Vimeo was accessible for a long time after Youtube was blogged. There might have been fewer, but I’m sure there were some twitter clients open for a while after Twitter itself had been blocked. As Nielcn suggested, maybe it’s a loosening of resources and the sites that were added more lately have been re-opened.

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  8. Well I do not know there, but here, a normal neighbourhood connection, net is getting weird since June 2 afternoon. Even next day in the morning (fast upload/download here) is like a real pain in the *ss.

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  9. @ Brian: Yes, but that article is from 14 hours ago, whereas this post is from June 1st. I will admit that when writing it, I didn’t have access to a time machine so there was no way for me to know what the press might be covering in the future.

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  10. How can they block things again, unless they unblock it? Seriously, it’s pretty sad. They might get more appreciation when they keep things open for real. Like all things China, it’s more about economics. They probably realized they were losing boat loads of money from cutting themselves off from the rest of the world.

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  11. Blogspot/Blogger was completely unblocked last night (Beijing time) and is now blocked this morning.

    Youtube was sort of unblocked last night–it led to either a blank page or a Chinese-language homepage that wouldn’t completely load (rather than the “connection is reset” page). It is blocked again this morning.

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  12. I personally think your explanations are all a bit off point. Look at it from a different angle:

    Prostitution is, by law, illegal in China, but in reality prostitution is practically legal. Why?

    Answer me this and you will know why porn is not blocked.

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  13. When Mao wanted to find out who his enemies were he tricked them into disclosing their affiliations: 百花齐放(bai3hua1qi2fang4), let a hundred flowers bloom. Then he struck. Could this be something similar? Won’t people be lulled into a sense of false security, visiting sites which identify them, as enemies of the State, all the more easily to be identified and then dealt with?

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  14. Maybe the reson is simple, 26th Federation Internationale du Sport Universitaire hold in Shenzhen. I still remember during 2008 Beijing Olympic we can open YouTube in China.

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