Theories abound for overseas web access troubles

Web users in a number of major Chinese cities reported difficulties in getting to overseas websites as their access has been seemingly frequently interrupted since early this month.

Overseas websites, including Gmail and Yahoo, became inaccessible as requests to log onto these websites returned error messages, while connections to MSN Messenger were unstable and Apple’s App Store was off-limits, Web users in cities including Beijing and Shenzhen reported since May 6.

This stop-and-start access to sites whose servers are located outside of the Chinese mainland was mostly reported by corporate users and businesses, where demands to visit overseas sites are large.

A number of institutions, including Zhejiang University in Hangzhou and Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, posted notices earlier this month, attributing instability to “restrictions on visits to foreign websites by the Internet service providers – China Unicom and China Telecom.”

The cyber world was awash with complaints, with one microblogger saying he was “unable to visit from the IBM Beijing headquarters.”

Individual users surfing through broadband Internet connections at home seemed to be less affected but were not altogether spared from these frustrations.

Some foreign residents in Huaqing Jiayuan neighborhood in the north of Beijing, popular with international students, also complained about inaccessibility over the past several days.

“It has been very difficult to visit foreign websites at home,” a foreigner living in the community, speaking anonymously, told the Global Times Tuesday.

Employees with local Internet service provider, Blue Wave Broadband World, told the Global Times that “the company was instructed to limit access to foreign sites by allowing only a set number of IP addresses to visit overseas websites at one time. Since there are many foreigners in this community wanting to log onto foreign sites, there could be such interruptions.”

Neither China Unicom nor China Telecom was available for comment Tuesday. The alleged Internet access interruptions fueled speculations of possible official efforts to regulate Internet technologies, including Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), which enable users to visit blocked websites. Some of them are seen as illegal and are therefore blocked on the mainland.

VPNs did not function well during recent Internet interruptions.

Global Voices Advocacy, a pressure group, said the interruption followed the use of “monitoring software on routers that direct Internet traffic within and across China’s borders,” the Guardian reported. It added that the new software appears to be able to detect large amounts of connections being made to overseas Internet locations.

Fang Binxing, president of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, attributed the interruptions to Internet service providers’ economic concerns.

“Service providers have to pay the bill of the international Internet flow for their users. So there is incentive for the companies to discourage users to visit foreign websites,” he said.

This view was echoed by Wei Wuhui, an IT technology and new media expert at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Roughly 20 percent of university students use VPNs to visit websites that are not accessible in the Chinese mainland, such as Facebook and Twitter, with that figure fast increasing, Wei said, adding that too many visits at once to these sites could cause blockages.

Fang said the intermittent access to the foreign sites may also be attributed to limited bandwidth being set aside for international traffic, as it currently stands at only around 1 terabyte, falling short of mounting domestic demand.

An anonymous official with the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology declined to explain why foreign websites were frequently inaccessible a telephone interview with the Global Times, and instead urged users to “check their own technology problems and with the websites’ servers on the first place.”

The official referred the Global Times to the State Internet Information Office, a newly established department to administer both online publishing and Internet access management.

Calls to the office went unanswered Tuesday. The Internet Surveillance Department of Beijing Public Security Bureau said they were not aware of this matter.

Zhu Shanshan and Li Yanhui contributed to this story

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