CHINA: Access to overseas research disrupted

Universities across China have had their access to online overseas research publications and other data blocked after the authorities clamped down on a tool used to access foreign websites.

According to a notice from the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of High Energy Physics last week: "Our faculty's access to overseas websites have been disrupted in the past few days. Upon investigation, the reason is because some users have used circumvention tools to get access to illegal content, hence the public security bureau has blacklisted our faculty's IP."

A notice posted by the library of the Southern Medical University in Guangzhou also reported disruptions, saying that users could no longer connect to some overseas research databases. It explained that China Telecom had restricted access by the university's IP to overseas websites.

Zhejiang University's library has reported similar problems, according to Chinese internet bloggers, who reported that their computers had come up with a 'blue screen' when they tried to access overseas research sites.

In order to access international data and publications for their students and researchers, universities have been allowed to circumvent China's 'great firewall', which blocks many overseas internet sites including Twitter and Facebook.

But sources in China said universities may have been caught unawares as the authorities try to clamp down on loopholes used by people trying to circumvent the controls.

The most common by-pass is to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN), often via a Hong Kong server. These create an encrypted connection making it impossible to monitor by censors. Universities use these to connect to overseas databases.

"Foreign researchers and students land in China and find that access to sites they normally have access to back home are blocked. But they find out very quickly, within a matter of days, from other students how to get round it," said one Western academic based at a university in Eastern China who did not wish to be named.

"It is an open secret on campuses here and indeed I would say it is vital for research work, particularly in the sciences."

Roughly 20% 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, said Wei Wuhui, an IT technology and new media expert at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, quoted in Global Times, an official Chinese newspaper.

The actual extent of recent disruptions to universities and research institutions is unclear, but technology bloggers began to report problems in early May.

This month a number of corporations in China including IBM were also affected. But individuals who frequently have problems with email accounts such as gmail did not report major issues.

In a tacit acknowledgement that an official clampdown was underway Fang Binxing, President of Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications - also known as the 'father of the great firewall of China' - 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 claimed.

Fang, who holds a PhD in computer science from the Harbin Institute of Technology and has held many positions including the Ministry of Public Security's expert on information security, was pelted with eggs and a shoe last week by a student from Huazhong University of Science and Technology while making a speech at Wuhan University in central Hubei Province.

He is deeply unpopular among students for masterminding internet restrictions in China.

In an interview with the Global Times in February, he revealed that he was the head designer of key elements of the firewall and said there was "a battle between the apparatus and technologies such as the VPNs.

"I have six VPNs on my home computer," he said. "But I only try them to test which side wins, the GFW [great firewall] or the VPN. So far, the GFW is lagging behind and still needs improvement," he said.