China Pulls Plug on Internet Data Centers Ahead of Party Congress

2007-09-05
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Photo: AFP

HONG KONG—Authorities in major cities across China have moved to close down large swathes of the Internet, targeting “interactive” sites ahead of the Communist Party congress in mid-October, according to netizens, government Web sites, and service providers.

Participatory Web sites, forums, and blogging platforms came under strict new rules last week. But in an unprecedented move, the authorities have begun switching off entire Internet data centers (IDCs), which are home to thousands of servers.

This means that if one site doesn't meet government approval, because it contains pornography or politically sensitive material, all are taken offline.

“The ‘very important meeting’ is going to be held soon,” veteran Shanghai blogger Wang Jianshuo wrote in an entry Wednesday. “To prepare a ‘good environment’ for the meeting, massive [amounts of] Web sites in China were shut down.”

Data centers closed down

They told us, ‘We’d rather wrongly close 1,000 Web sites than let a single Web site post illegal information.'

Wang said the crackdown differed from previous attempts to limit participatory Web sites, forums, and blogging platforms by requiring that users register their real names with China’s Internet authorities.

“This time, much different from the previous actions, it is the whole data center instead of Web sites or servers that were shut down,” Wang wrote.

Xiamen-based Lanmang Internet Co. which operates an IDC in the southern port city of Shantou, Guangdong province, said more than 1,000 of its communication networks had been disconnected Aug. 28 after alleged “illegal” content was posted on some blogs it hosted.

“Some of our [Internet] clients posted some illegal blogs on the Web,” a spokeswoman for Lanmang told RFA’s Cantonese service. “The Shantou police are investigating some kind of blogs consisting of illegal information at the moment, so some of our equipment had to be closed down.”

She said about 1,000 main computers were affected, and the company was considering moving the equipment to Xiamen so they could continue to operate, she added.

A police officer in the Shantou police department also confirmed the move.

More to come

“The Shantou Telecommunications Department is in the process of clearing some illegal information on the blogs. They found some illegal information on Lanmang, and they are investigating the incident now. It wasn’t the police department who put restrictions on the company,” the officer said.

He said he believed more Internet companies would be closed down in the clearing action by local telecommunications departments.

Meanwhile, Zitian Net, an IDC based in Luoyang, Henan province, was forced to shut down after someone posted “illegal information,” according to an accusation filed by the Ministry of Information. As the IDC was shut down without warning, more than 10,000 Web sites were disconnected, affecting millions of Web users.

An employee who answered the phone at Zitian’s service center said: “One of the most affected clients is a free statistics Web site which has more than 70 servers.”

“Of the 10,000 affected Web sites, many of them are government and business Web sites,” the employee, surnamed Yang, told RFA Mandarin service reporter Xiu Yan.

Yang said Zitian had been told by Internet regulatory officials that the Web sites wouldn’t be re-opened until after the 17th Party Congress.

Shanghai center shut down

“They told us, ‘We’d rather wrongly close 1,000 Web sites than let a single Web site post illegal information,’” Yang added.

The sudden closures also hit the Waigaoqiao IDC in Shanghai, one of the largest and most cutting-edge in the country, according to bloggers Wang and “Chapi.”

Shanghai-based blogger Chapi gave this account: “By 8:10 p.m. on Sept. 3, the disaster had arrived at the Shanghai’s Waigaoqiao IDC, where more than 30 computers were switched off, affecting more than 20 servers. The number of servers being closed continued to rise. Everyone was trying to second-guess whether Shanghai would also end up with the entire IDC shut down.”

Internet businesses were left angry, bewildered, and out of pocket .

“They should find another way to crack down on illegal information, which doesn’t affect some Web sites that do not have illegal information,” one forum moderator said.

“Since these IDCs host about 100 to 200 Web sites per server, I cannot imagine how many sites were shut down,” according to blogger Wang Jianshuo, known for avoiding politically sensitive topics in his English-language posts.

Forums, message boards targeted

He said many IDCs in Shanghai were simply unplugged, taking out hundreds of servers at a time, including the one at Waigaoqiao, one of the largest and most advanced in China.

“If this continues, I guess the total number of shut-down sites may quickly be 1 million,” Wang said.

Other China-based bloggers have echoed Wang’s concerns.

“The situation is getting worse,” wrote blogger Tangos on the China Web 2.0 Review blog.

“IDCs in China are required to take self-discipline actions to close all BBSs, forums, blogs, message boards, or any kinds of interactive features in their hosted servers or virtual spaces, otherwise the whole IDCs may be closed completely,” he wrote.

He said anyone wishing to start blogging might have to switch to a blogging service provider that had signed a self-discipline pact with the authorities, or use a hosting service from abroad.

Political debate in China over the registration and disclosure of authors’ real names on content posted in Chinese cyberspace has continued for more than two years, and the authorities routinely close down Web sites displaying content they consider politically subversive.

New application process

But the authorities appear to be taking no chances in the run-up to the sensitive 17th Party Congress, which will set the political agenda for several years to come.

China’s Internet authorities in recent days have issued a new set of rules aimed at curbing the spread of “interactive” Internet sites such as bulletin boards (BBS), chat rooms, blogs, and discussion forums.

Under the new rules issued Friday by the Ministry of Information Industry in Beijing, all providers offering such services must reapply for a license to operate, according to a statement posted on the Guangdong provincial telecommunications bureau Web site. Those without a license under the new scheme were ordered closed.

“It looks as if they are almost all being closed,” said a spokesman for an IDC based in Foshan, Guangdong province. “Even those that are well-managed have to be closed down.”

“We don’t really know what the government is thinking of. We are told we can apply for a license, but actually they have made that very difficult.”

He said the bar seemed to have been set much higher by China’s censors than previously. “We are noticing that articles which we think are legal, and fine to be published, are now being ruled out by the authorities,” he said.

Economic losses

Two Internet service providers, Century East of Chengdu, Sichuan province, and Zhongke Technology of Shantou, Guangdong province, both suffered large economic losses after the authorities pulled the plug on their forums, BBS, and blogs without warning.

Century East said it was ordered to close by the public security department, and that it can’t be sure if their forum will be allowed to resume after the Congress.

A customer service representative from Zhongke Technology told reporter Yan Ming that their service was disrupted without any warning and his company has had to bear the economic loss.

According to the Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF), at least 30 journalists and 50 Internet users are currently detained in China, some of them since the 1980s. The group says the Chinese government also routinely blocks access to thousands of news Web sites which carry content outlawed by Beijing.

Original reporting in Cantonese by Lee Kin-kwan and in Mandarin by Yan Ming, Yan Xiu and Xin Yu. RFA Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie and Feng Xiaoming. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

Blog: RFA Unplugged

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