Apr 25 2012
I recently returned to Shanghai from a 3 week business to South Korea. When I sat down to reflect on my trip and listen to some radio news from the UK, I fired up my Sonos audio system and was perplexed why all of my Internet radio station favourites had disappeared, yet those of my wife still remained (my wife is from China and I new they were hers because they were all Chinese stations).
At first I thought my wife had done some housekeeping of the favourite station list, but knowing how she relies on me to do most things with tech in the house I figured is was unlikely. So instead of confronting my wife, I decided to re-add them all and was perplexed as to why only stations for China were listed. Why was this? Had Sonos done some deal with the Chinese authorities to only allow streaming of stations based in China?
So figuring there was something wrong with the my Sonos setup I pointed my web browser to http://tunein.com and got the ever famous message from Safari:
Safari can’t open the page “http://tunein.com/” because the server unexpectedly dropped the connection. This sometimes occurs when the server is bust. Wait for a few minutes, and then try again.
If you have ever lived or even travelled to China and used the Internet, you know that 9 times out of 10 this means the site is blocked by the GFW (Great Firewall of China). Many popular sites are inaccessible from China, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook to name just a few. Sadly this message is almost a daily occurrence. So why has this happened all of a sudden because for the last 6 months all has been well and BBC Radio 4 can often be heard around my apartment?
When I eventually got hold of the news I realised that this clamp down could have been because of the recent issues relating to Bo Xilai and his alleged links to the death of Neil Heywood. I stupidly hoped that after a few days the block would be lifted.
So was my UK Internet radio listening doomed forever while I lived in China? As it turns out, no is the answer. I have since been able to source direct URLs for streaming my favourite stations and then add them manually to my Sonos system. BBC Radio 4 can once again be heard in my apartment.
So is all this blocking a complete waste of time? I actually think mostly it is. Being more tech savvy than the average man on the street I can more easily understand how to use proxies, VPN’sw etc to bypass the GFW and actually access most things on the Internet from China. So if you really want to access Twitter, it maybe inconvenient to do so, and you might have to do some research, but you can. So I believe that those members of the Chinese population that want to access blocked content can do so if they try hard enough, and the rest of the population who frankly don’t care (and I am sure that is most) will be happy to use the home grown equivalent social networks (Weibo and RenRen).
Although most believe that the Chinese Government is concerned about how social networks could be used to create social unrest, I actually believe this is only part of the picture. China has not only the largest population in the world, but also the largest online population. If this population solely used websites from the rest of the world then any revenue that is generated from these users benefits the rest of the world and not China. So, the home grown social networks not only allow government control, but also ensure any revenue generated will benefit the China economy. No wonder Mark Zuckerberg has been vacationing in China and allegedly having talks with the Chinese authorities over the potential return of Facebook.
I think it will be interesting to see how the worlds most Internet savvy Government maintains it’s control over the population’s Internet access in the coming years. While most of us in the rest of the world believe our access is free, the recent announcement by the UK government to bring in new legislation to monitor email and web usage is a step towards the model used in China. UK Citizens you have been warned!