The Golden Shield Project (aka Great Firewall of China) has decided GitHub no longer conforms with Chinese notions of harmony, as first noticed Monday by GreatFire.org and reported on The Next Web.
The block comes on the heels of the Ministry of Railways’s unsuccessful attempt to convince Chinese browser-makers to stop providing a plugin that helps users purchase train tickets off MOR’s website.
A bit of background before we go any further: GitHub acts as a platform for software developers to share, revise, and track changes to code. This means that people who make those cool apps and websites we use every day use GitHub as a means to communicate with other developers, share their work, and generally make their products (and, thus, our lives) better1.
According GitHub’s representative, China ranks fourth in traffic to the site, while Beijing is the sixth-ranked city. There’s no regional breakdown, but the service does have 3 million registered users.
Also, this isn’t the first time that GitHub has been censored. Last year, users were unable to download a new version of Node.js2, as its version number shared the same date as the 1989 Tian’anmen protests.
The plugins themselves don’t use any APIs, as MOR’s ticketing site, 12306.cn, doesn’t actually have any APIs that I know of. Instead, they work by automatically refreshing the page until the desired ticket/trip becomes available for purchase. Imagine the Flash hitting refresh hundreds, if not thousands, of times every second. As you can imagine, this would put increasing pressure on already overloaded (read: incapable) servers dealing with the largest annual migration in the world.
As my good friend and former podcast co-host Charlie Custer points out on Tech in Asia (he’s responsible for the image above), the problems with overloaded servers and the plugins that overload them could all be solved very easily: make the website better. When the site first debuted, it was plagued with server-side issues and confusing interface… after the ministry spent $52 million. To give them credit, they did make some upgrades last September… that cost an extra $53 million (330 million RMB).
The moral of this story: if you can’t solve a problem by throwing money at it, make sure that unauthorized third-parties are unable to make things better, either.
1 This is, of course, a contentious philosophical issue. If you want to hear my thoughts, buy me a beer and you’ll get an earful.
2 Software used to write Internet applications that can flexibly handle higher and lower numbers of users depending on traffic. It’s usually used on web servers.
UPDATE, 1/24, 12:32 pm: GitHub has been unblocked, maybe.