This weekend, China seemingly cut off access for users within its borders to an uncensored version of Wikipedia. Despite the site’s availability for more than a year up until that point, it is speculated that either this was China cracking down on its totalitarian regime to block citizens’ access to information that contradicts the official party line, or something a little bit more timely.
After more than a year of Wikipedia’s HTTPS-connected version being available inside the country (the connections began in October 2011), Chinese authorities apparently started blocking access to the site this past May 31. This left everyone within the country to use the HTTP version of the site – which may seem indifferent at first, but it turns out that you’d be wrong with that sensible-sounding assertion.
The difference between the HTTPS and HTTP versions of the site is that the latter can be subject to keyword filtering, meaning that literally hundreds of articles on the site are now unavailable entirely for Chinese users – including articles on the Tiananmen Square protests of June 4, 1989. HTTPS allowed for an encrypted version of the site, which meant that it was impossible to selectively block particular content. The block was literally an all or nothing arrangement, with Chinese authorities initially seeming to fall on the “all” side of the equation.
The blocking of HTTPS connections to Wikipedia was noticed initially by the Greatfire blog, which noted with some sense of surprise that it had taken so long for Chinese authorities to block the uncensored version of the site. The timing was also interesting, as the block occurred just days before the 24th anniversary of the Tiananmen protests. However, as the site itself pointed out, “this cannot be the only factor as the encrypted version remained untouched in June 2012.”
Additionally, Greatfire suggested ways in which Wikipedia and users can circumvent the censorship of the HTTPS version of the site, should they decide to do so. “Because [the Chinese firewall] only blocks port 443 on 126.96.36.199 and 188.8.131.52 (so far), we can manually resolve domains to other IP owned by Wikipedia to bypass the block,” the site explains. “However, unless Wikipedia officially resolves to those IP and switch HTTPS to default, GFW can easily block port 443 on those IP addresses too.”
Whether the block in China was timely or simply coincidental to the Tiananmen protests, it’s sad to see Wikipedia taking things lying down at this time. Wikipedia was founded on a simple belief that information should be freely available to everyone. Shouldn’t that translate across national barriers?