While the World is pondering the complex final moves in the cultural conflict between Google and China’s censors, the story has has taken a completely bizarre twist: For some reason, China’s censorship firewall went briefly world-wide.
This seems to be an event that you’d dismiss as part of the twisty background plot in a James Bond movie, but it did happen: During the week, sysadmins around the World noticed that traffic that should have been happily flowing to sites such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook was instead being diverted to servers inside China, where it fell subject to the country’s tough Great Firewall censorship regime. The result was that certain users around the globe got the same “service not available messages” that the Chinese would get, or were diverted to Chinese alternatives.
Think that’s impossible, that China’s green dam couldn’t possibly grow outside China’s borders and fence off other parts of the free-thinking, free-wheeling Internet World? Well you’re wrong, it can. The alert began to be raised on Wednesday, when a techie at Chile’s Domain Name System (DNS) registry first noticed the Chinese diverts–DNS being one of the core systems that helps the Net connect up across the World. A global conversation among people in similar roles quickly sprang up as more and more people reported the same bizarre events.
The root of the problem was finally traced to the I Root Server in Sweden, which was, it seems the chief culprit. The servers operators, Netnod/Autonomica, have denied responsibility–they are “currently investigating” but note that they do not “intercept, interfere, rewrite or otherwise alter” the traffic running through their systems.
Of course, given the censor-loving ways of the Chinese authorities, and the fact that the Google affair is still unraveling, the finger of suspicion is pointing very firmly in China’s direction. Who else would stand to gain, at this particular moment, from demonstrating that global Net traffic could effectively be hijacked at a moment’s notice? That’s a powerful political message, along the lines of “don’t meddle in our affairs, Mr President. There will be consequences.” China’s state-run media has already accused Google of running a political agenda, and acting on behalf of the U.S. government.
China’s own Internet Network Information Center has, of course, denied any responsibility in meddling with the i Root code…but that doesn’t rule out behind-the-scenes meddling by government-sanctioned hacker-types. There has, for example, been a long standing suspicion that Chinese authorities routinely spoof or meddle with DNS code for their own purposes, so it’s not beyond belief that something similar has gone on here.
But apart from the gentle political threat, what has China to gain from doing this? Not much. If it’s true that the “hijacking” of these sites is an official political gambit, then everyone else in the World will think much less of China, and governments will be quickly angered. This raises the thought that another player, perhaps based in the West and with interests in souring Sino-Western relations, was behind the affair. We simply don’t know yet. But it certainly seems like China’s tussle with the World over Net freedoms has plenty more 007-like plot-twists to go through yet.