A sign of a crack in the Great Chinese Firewall? Internet users in China today are reporting that they are able to access Facebook in the country: some say they can access the site through mobile Internet connections and iOS apps; others are reporting access using HTTPS connections on their computers.
The social network has been having problems in the country as far back as 2009, when the site was “punished” for allowing a Uighur activist to post details of an upcoming protest.
Today’s news comes by way of Georg Godula, a marketing professional based in China with the Web2Asia consultancy, who first noted in a tweet that he was able to access the network using an iOS app, “but not on Safari or any broadband connection.”
Later he told me by email that today he and several other users on China Unicom mobile using the iOS Facebook app found that it could be opened without a VPN connection: before now, using a virtual private networking tunnel was the only way of accessing the social network. “Also several of my friends in Beijing reported they could use it on their broadband Unicom connection through a PC browser,” he added.
That PC usage seems to be supported by some additional reporting: the Voice of America blog notes that it too was able to achieve access by prefacing the URL with HTTPS in Beijing. But it also said that users in Chongqing and Ningxia were not able to access the site using this route.
China has 500 million Internet users and for the moment the most popular social networking sites are those that have been home-grown, such as Sina Weibo. The government monitors these.
Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are among the social media sites that are blocked in China regularly, and some have wondered if Facebook’s $1 billion Instagram purchase might help the social network get a better foothold in the country: at the moment Instagram is on the OK list.
In March, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s founder and CEO, took a vacation in China and sparked a flurry of speculation over whether this signaled a new effort for Facebook in the country. Nothing official came out of that speculation, however. But as Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, has noted in the past: “You can’t connect the whole world and not China.”
It’s unclear whether today’s breaches in the firewall are permanent or just temporary. We have reached out to Facebook about this story and will update it as we learn more.
Update: Facebook has gotten back to us with an official no comment for now.
Update 2: Looks like it is answer B: just temporary. Jeremy Goldkorn, founding director of Danwei.com, a website and research firm that tracks Chinese media and internet, tells us that it was just a temporary bug that is getting fixed. He also adds that this is not a market where Facebook is making much headway at the moment:
“There is nothing Facebook can do to sort itself out in China,” he said in an email exchange. “Any attempt to enter the market as Facebook itself or to sneak in using a smaller company like Instagram is doomed and will lead to world of pain — a PR nightmare in the U.S. and a huge waste of money and energy in China.”
He adds that “the only smart thing” for Facebook to do in China is to invest in or acquire notable startups, “if they can find any.”