China's 'Great Firewall' could be culprit in massive internet outage

  • 23 January 2014
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People use computers at an internet cafe in Beijing on May 12, 2011.
As many as two-thirds of China's 500 million internet users were without service on Tuesday

On Wednesday, we mentioned reports of a massive internet outage in China and posted a quote from Beijing's Global Times calling for the US to investigate.

"This is a serious attack in the Chinese internet security system and the damage and the background of this attack must be determined," the editors wrote. "Owing to the US's complete management rights over the internet, we hereby strongly request the US government to investigate the incident and publicize the findings. If the US fails to deal with the incident properly, Chinese trust toward the US over the Internet will be damaged."

The Global Times wasn't the only media outlet questioning the outage. Li Yi writes in the Beijing Times [translated by BBC Monitoring] that this demonstrates that China needs to host more internet infrastructure on its own soil:

As it can be seen, the US is not only the leader in internet technologies, it is also the de facto controller of the internet... What is comforting is that our country has grasped the key technology for the next generation internet's IPv6 root name servers, and relevant government departments have prioritized it as a national security strategy and are speeding up the construction of the next generation internet.

Yeah, about that grasp of key technology.

According to the Chinese internet watchdog group Greatfire.org, Chinese censorship may be to blame for what is likely the largest outage in the internet's history, affecting as many as two-thirds of China's 500 million users. Instead of preventing access to sites that Chinese authorities wanted block, they accidentally may have directed vast amounts of Chinese internet traffic to those sites.

The servers at Dynamic Internet Technology, which assists the websites of Chinese human rights groups, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia in bypassing China's "Great Internet Firewall", crashed within milliseconds.

To add to the intrigue, the servers of another company, Sophidea, also appears to have been targeted. Sophidea is supposedly based in Wyoming, but its "headquarters" is just a two-story brick building filled with mailboxes of a variety of companies that want to hide the details of their existence.

"The irony of the whole thing - epic #censorfail! - is, for those of us with First Amendment protections we can comfortably take for granted, delicious," writes the Atlantic's Megan Garber.

For their part, Chinese officials are calling for further investigation and sticking with the hacking explanation for the outage.

"This again shows that China is a victim of hacking," said Qin Gang of the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

In reality, however, it seems the more plausible explanation is human and/or technical error and the perils of trying to control the vast, messy expanse of the internet.

"Chinese web service providers have struggled to overcome recurrent performance bottlenecks in the country's massive but often rickety data network," write Paul Carsten and Pete Sweeney for Reuters. "The need to continuously censor domestic content and block foreign websites only complicates the matter."

The Great Wall didn't stop Genghis Khan from conquering China. The 'Great Firewall' may prove similarly futile.