Loosens censors at Olympic Committee’s request

Chinese authorities appear to be unblocking a number of previously forbidden popular web sites, including English-language versions of Wikipedia, Blogspot, and YouTube. In most cases, however, Chinese versions, as well as English pages on sensitive topics, remain censored.

The unblocking appears to be a result of demands from the International Olympic Committee, which requested an “open” Internet so as to not impede journalists operating at the 2008 Olympics Games, which are set to be hosted in Beijing.

Originally, tipsters reported that China ordered ISPs to open internet access only in the areas Olympic visitors will be known to work and play, such as hotel rooms, conference rooms, and area net cafes. The Atlantic , speaking with anonymous Chinese ISP workers, concluded that China’s efforts were nothing more than a “Potemkin-style unfettered access,” set up “just for [foreigners] and just for the length of their stay,” – ostensibly to minimize the problems it would face from the Olympics’ sudden influx of foreigners.

Now, China seems to have changed course, albeit somewhat selectively: Chinese users, as well as internal testing by DailyTech, indicate regional differences in censor coverage, with some sites accessible in one city but inaccessible in another. Blogspot, a site that already has a storied history with China’s censor, is currently unblocked in some areas, but inaccessible to others.

This behavior is attributed to the distributed nature of the censor – known officially as The Golden Shield Project and colloquially as “The Great Firewall of China” -- which researchers at UC Davis and the University of New Mexico found to be dodgy on its enforcement, relying on social engineering as much as technical prowess.

Despite China’s increased openness, however, it is important to note that it still is not in compliance with the Olympic Committee’s request: inspectors told China that the internet “must be open,” a statement that many interpret as “completely open,” and that any form of censorship “would reflect very poorly” on China’s image as host country.

Sensitive topics, including recent Tibet unrest and the Tiananmen Square incident, continue to be blocked, even when queried on unblocked websites like English-language Wikipedia and Additionally, Chinese websites that self-censor their content, including the Chinese-language versions of Google and Windows Live Spaces, are unaffected by this change in policy unless they decide to act on their own.

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