Yesterday, China’s internet briefly became an intranet. Most users inside the country couldn’t access any pages hosted abroad, and net users worldwide lost access to Chinese sites. It had been theorized that this was an issue with China Telecom’s internet intfrastructure, or that it was related to the recent earthquake in Southeast Asia. But now both Telecom and Unicom have officially denied that the issues were caused by infrastructure problems on their ends. Both companies say that during the outage there seemed to be nothing technically wrong with their networks, and they aren’t sure what caused the problem.
Unicom officials said the company’s internet reports showed the earthquake had not interfered with underwater cables that help connect China’s internet to the outside world. An expert at Telecom echoed that the problem was not with its network. This is significant because all Chinese internet traffic must be routed through Telecom or Unicom’s network infrastructure to get overseas.
It remains unclear what the cause of the outage was, and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology has yet to offer an explanation. Personally, I think it’s starting to look like maybe this really was a test of a new government “kill switch” that would allow it to quickly block access to all foreign websites and disrupt the use of VPNs that previously made it possible to circumvent China’s internet censorship system. The fact that some small VPN providers weren’t blocked and continued to operate as usual seems to indicate that bigger VPNs were probably targeted intentionally, since a real infrastructure disconnect between China and the rest of the world would block all VPN traffic, not just traffic from more well-known VPN services.
In light of the recent upheaval in China’s leadership and the upcoming Party congress that will decide who leads the country for the next generation, it makes some sense that the government might be interested in an emergency off button in case something gets out of hand. But it now also knows that if it does block overseas sites wholesale, it will probably have to deal with significant blowback from Chinese net users, many of whom were quite upset about yesterday’s fairly short outage.