The “iTunes Blocked in China” Takeaway

The iTunes Store, the portal page used to puchase media from Apple, was briefly blocked in China. This meant that iTunes users in China were unable to view, search, sample and purchase media available through Apple’s iTunes Store. (I recently spoke with The World’s Cyrus Farivar about this story (mp3), below I expand on some of the details.)

How? China has a multi-layered filtering system. One of these layers is “key word” filtering that occurs near the main international gateways that connect China to the rest of the Internet. When packets are found in requests (or responses) that contain certain keywords, China’s filtering system sends reset (RST) packets to the computer that issued the request as well as the computer to which the request was sent effectively terminating the connection between the two. China added a portion of the iTunes Store URL as a keyword; whenever a request was seen to contain this keyword the request was reset.

Why? China does not disclose the official reasons why content is blocked but the reason is most likely due to the “Songs for Tibet” album available through the iTunes Store. The album contains songs by popular artists and those who purchase the entire album get access to a video of the Dalai Lama. While other content the Government of China would likely find objectionable is available in iTunes, including Tibet and Dalai Lama related content, downloading the “Songs for Tibet” album became a form of protest.

The Art of Peace Foundation issued a press release on August 19, 2008 stating that Olympic athletes were downloading the album “as an act of solidarity with Tibet.” On August 21, 2008 Stephen Hutcheon of the Sydney Morning Herald reported:

Access to Apple’s online iTunes Store has been blocked in China after it emerged that Olympic athletes have been downloading and possibly listening to a pro-Tibetan music album in a subtle act of protest against China’s rule over the province.

Access to the Tunes Store was quickly reinstated, but access to the specific album was reportedly still blocked. Shortly thereafter reports emerged stating that the album itself was also accessible from within China. It is still unclear whether full access to the album has been restored.

Where? How is it possible that some Internet users in China have access to the “Songs for Tibet” album in the iTunes Store while others do not? China has a multi-layered filtering system; it is not always identical in all parts of China. While the album is no longer blocked in all of China, at the gateway points for example, it may still be blocked at local or regional levels or on specific Internet Service Providers.

The Takeaway? The blocking of the iTunes store itself, and the blocking of the specific “Songs for Tibet” album, is important even though it was brief. Not so much in terms of the Government of China, we know that they will continue to block content they find threatening but i terms of what Apple will do. It turns out that normal Internet users in China can’t purchase and download the “Songs for Tibet” album, only foreigners with credit cards and billing addresses outside of China can. (They can listen/watch the short clips available for free however, it they set their iTunes Store to a different location, such as Canada). iTunes does not currently have a full iTunes Store for China — but they will!

When Apple opens “iTunes Store China” will “Songs for Tibet” be available through it? Will they restrict access to content by geographical locations? Well for copyright reasons they already do, will they do so for politically sensitive content as well?

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