This year might well mark the death of YouTube in China. The world’s most popular video sharing website came to life in early 2005 and was bought by Google in November 2006. However YouTube has effectively died a death in China, being constantly blocked since March 24th of this year.
On that date a Google spokesman, Scott Rubin, said, “We don’t know the reason for the block. Our government relations people are trying to resolve it.” Well, they didn’t resolve it.
This makes YouTube the largest and most popular single victim of a blanket ban courtesy of China’s ‘Great Firewall’ – an extensive, nationwide system of web monitoring, filtering, and blocking that is rumoured to employ as many as 30,000 people in hits hundreds of regional centres.
There have been brief blocks on YouTube in China before – as well as literally hundreds of other sites – which have then been lifted after a few weeks. But YouTube might not be so ‘lucky’ this time, and parent company Google might be doomed to a year or more of lost advertising revenue from the total shut-off of the China market.
YouTube was never as popular within China as a number of homegrown video sharing sites – such as Youku and Tudou – so it may not have been a major part of the Chinese webosphere. But, crucially, being a foreign website, it was outside of direct intervention by the Chinese government, and therefore always an inconvenience and a ‘danger’ to the mantra of “social harmony”. Youku, Tudou and their ilk are expected to self-censor politically sensitive and overly-sexual content, or face reprisals such as potential blockage, a verbal attack by state-media, or – more likely – the removal of staff at the behest of local officials.
It is believed that footage appearing to show Han Chinese policemen beating a number of Tibetans during last years Lhasa riots were the straw that broke the camels back, and a faceless someone in one of the Great Firewall centres hit the big red button that turns off the whole of YouTube. No explanation, no accountability. But, undoubtedly, a number of young tech-savvy Chinese who did often use YouTube will have noted the blockage with some shame and disappointment.
Don’t be mean about Ataturk…
There is one precedent for all this: in Turkey, where YouTube has been fully blocked by state censors since May 2008 due to a number of videos hosted on YouTube that were deemed insulting to the country’s founding father, Ataturk, who died over eight decades ago. There was a slight bit more accountability and visibility in YouTube’s demise in Turkey in that Turkish law prosecutors had to seek a court-ordered shutdown.
So it’s highly likely that this year’s YouTube block will go on even longer; perhaps indefinitely, as it now is in Turkey.
2009 – with its anniversary of Tiananmen in 1989, the Urumqi riots, and the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC) – is likely to be a grim year for freedom of expression, especially on the internet, proving that last years Olympics did little to encourage a more open and relaxed approach to dissent or alternative ideas – or the free exchange of ideas amongst people.
This last aspect has caused the most upset amongst the users of twitter – with some feeling patronised like a naughty child for the simple act of networking online: an innocent activity that is at the core of internet usage at the start of the 21st-century. In early June a young Chinese law graduate contacted the BBC News website on the subject of social-networking websites, such as Facebook, twitter, and YouTube, and observed:
“Those websites give us the opportunity to get different ideas, which can influence the way we think. I call this a mind revolution. I am certain that Chinese people won’t be so easily fooled anymore, which will make our government’s job a lot tougher and will eventually bring about democracy in China.”
Whoa, there. Don’t drop the D-bomb. Anyway, China has mostly been deprived of international ‘web 2.0’ sites during much of 2009 – undoubtedly alerting hundreds of thousands of Chinese web users to internet censorship within their country for the first time.
The web 2.0 casualty list this year is massive. All of these can be overcome with a free or paid VPN for some or all of your time spent browsing online. The twitter block is the easiest to overcome, by using – if you don’t know already – a web app to access the twitter network that doesn’t actually resolve through the blocked twitter.com URL (try iTweet, Hahlo, HootSuite, or the Twittergadget which you can add to iGoogle)
Here, off the top of my head, is the massive web 2.0 block list:
Wordpress free blogs
Google’s Picasa Web Albums (log-in accessible, but borked thereafter)
Google Image search results (generally accessible; but very frequent re-set connections)
I think that’s it right now. Flickr is back and in good health. That list is just including the social-networking/web 2.0 kinda sites, and doesn’t count the hundreds of smaller politically-sensitive sites that are blocked. Feel free to add blocked web 2.0 sites in the comments.
So, roll on the next major national event: the CPC 60th anniversary. Because we can only hope that after that celebration the internet will start to get a bit more social again. It certainly can’t get any more anti-social.