Netless in China

Odd, how the earthquake-induced damage to a cable none of us knew even existed can wreak such havoc on China’s Internet. A blogger reflects on how this distant catastrophe effects his daily routines:

This past week has reminded me of the little things I take for granted: Eating the same breakfast casserole every year on Christmas morning, with fresh-baked blueberry muffins and orange juice; spending Christmas dinner joking with my siblings, telling the same stories and laughing just as hard; and an Internet cable running under the Pacific Ocean that connects North America to East Asia, that I never even thought about until an earthquake ruptured it sometime Wednesday.

The breakage of that cable has left much of China cut off from the World Wide Web for the past two days. Any sites not hosted locally have been unavailable or at best painfully slow. I’ve managed to see that I have email but can’t read it.

News has been the biggest loss. I usually read a dozen blogs and get RSS feeds on as many major newspapers. All I have now is China Daily. I was able to learn Wednesday that former President Gerald Ford died. I also read about how well China treats foreign reporters, even those from Taiwan. Xinhua told me, so it must be true.

Let’s all hope it gets repaired quickly. The idea of having to rely solely on state-owned media for information is scary (“we have completely eliminated SARS in Guandong province, and there are no signs of the disease in Beijing…”).

______________

Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 32 Comments

Some years ago I bought me a little radio, so I could hear BBC or some German radio station even if I’d be in the middle of nowhere. It’s very 20. century but in situations like this, where digital life shows it’s more fragile sides (or in an environment where the government can cut of all the connections to the outside world from one moment to the other), also very usefull to stay up to date.

December 31, 2006 @ 2:10 am | Comment

The morning after the quake I was able to guess the source of the problem from the fact that in Beijing I had no problem accessing the South China Morning Post (in HK) or the English language Chosun Ilbo (in South Korea). A few years earlier I had experienced Internet slowdowns to North America after fishing trawlers had screwed up the cables, so I guessed the quake had done something similar.

It only took a few minutes checking out the Chinese language news of Tom.com to verify the quake was behind it.

I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t access European sites, and was shocked to find out that most Internet traffic between China and Europe goes the other way around the world, through North America and across the Atlantic.

I was not impressed when a day later the Washington Post reported that “the Internet was down” in China. I guess they were as U.S.-centric as the Eyes East blogger (note his language: “The breakage of that cable has left much of China cut off from the World Wide Web for the past two days.” Uh, the Internet in Asia is PART of the World Wide Web.

A far more serious problem is how so many businesses (and expats like myself) rely on email and IM servers that are based outside of China. While I was able to access MSN Messenger and Gmail the day before yesterday, until today all of Yahoo was unavailable, include Yahoo Messenger and Mail.

As the SCMP noted, if this had occurred at any time other than the holidays, it could have been a financial disaster for many businesses — and not just in Asia. While banks had backup systems (like satellite communication), many HK trading houses couldn’t place orders.

As of this morning, fortunately, pretty much everything was accessible. Just in time for the New Year…

December 31, 2006 @ 2:16 am | Comment

Interesting points, Danfried! I think Eyes East’s reference to the WWW as something from the West was innocent if revealing – I think Americans probably do automatically think of the Internet as an American institution, which, while it isn’t true (anymore) is at least understandable.

As of this morning, fortunately, pretty much everything was accessible. Just in time for the New Year…

And just in time for my return in a few days.

December 31, 2006 @ 2:26 am | Comment

“I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t access European sites, and was shocked to find out that most Internet traffic between China and Europe goes the other way around the world, through North America and across the Atlantic.”

“I think Eyes East’s reference to the WWW as something from the West was innocent if revealing – I think Americans probably do automatically think of the Internet as an American institution”

Well, computer networking was invented in the US, the world wide web was invented by a Brit and the 13 master servers that do all of the www’s address translation are in San Jose, CA. That is why Asia’s internet connection needs to go through the US.

December 31, 2006 @ 2:42 am | Comment

Yes. The WWW was invented by a Brit, as you say, but the Internet was created in America, from the foundations of the Pentagon’s old Arpanet. (I don’t say that with any sense of nationalism; it’s just true.) The Web is just one layer – albeit for all of us the most important layer – of the Internet.

December 31, 2006 @ 3:37 am | Comment

I was not impressed when a day later the Washington Post reported that “the Internet was down” in China. I guess they were as U.S.-centric as the Eyes East blogger (note his language: “The breakage of that cable has left much of China cut off from the World Wide Web for the past two days.” Uh, the Internet in Asia is PART of the World Wide Web.

Have you ever heard of an earthquake or any other natural or manmade disaster or censorship disrupting internet service across America? I don’t see anything US-centric about Eyes East blogger’s description. Using the expression “cut off” does not imply that China is not part of the WWW.

December 31, 2006 @ 8:08 am | Comment

China could prevent this kind of thing in the future by getting rid all of the bottlenecks it deliberately created as part of “the great firewall”.

December 31, 2006 @ 8:10 am | Comment

Sonagi, Internet access was not disrupted WITHIN East Asia — because the links with North America were severed, access to the web OUTSIDE Asia was affected.

If the original blogger had stated he was cut off from the REST of the WWW, instead of being cut off from -THE- WWW, then there would have been nothing wrong with his statement. But he basically implied that the hundreds of millions of Asian Internet users who were able to continue communicating with non-U.S. based services like QQ just didn’t matter.

Nan, your understanding of the Internet is demonstrably wrong. I think you’re referring to the ORIGINAL 12 DNS root servers that were located in the U.S. There are now over 30 spread around the world.

The way I understand it, these servers do not act as ‘routers’ through which all Internet data flows. They are more analogous to a master list of Internet addresses; copies of these lists are obtained from these root servers by many other DNS servers around the world. Even if every DNS ROOT server around the world were suddenly destroyed, communication around the world could still occur; the problem would be in updating these lists as people logged on and off the Internet.

If all Internet data had to flow through those 12 U.S. servers, then cutting China off from those servers would have meant that there would have been no Internet communication both within China and between anywhere in Asia, for that matter. The fact that local service on continental Asia was not interrupted shows that this is not true.

Also, the Great Firewall had absolutely NOTHING to do with the lack of Internet access to North America. That was caused entirely due to physical reasons, a break in almost all of the Pacific cables between Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The Great Firewall is really a function of government mandated censorship WITHIN China — the data can flow into China from Hong Kong and Korea, but it gets blocked at the server level within China before it can reach local users. The Mainland government does NOT tell foreign Internet carriers they have to censor things going into China!

December 31, 2006 @ 9:52 am | Comment

It affects the physical world as well.

In Japan Fedex wasn’t making pickups the last days of the quarter, supposedly because of the earthquake, and when one went there they gave you a notice that they couldn’t guarantee your packages would be shipped before January 2007.

Made my quarter kind of difficult, to say the least.

December 31, 2006 @ 9:53 am | Comment

Hmm, I should warn Richard that it may be too early to relax just yet.

There’s always the possibility of another crunch once people start coming back from holiday.

China Netcom and other companies have been scrambling to get alternate routes to North America. I’m not sure if it is physically possible for them to get enough bandwidth to prevent more Internet slowdowns once businesses start up again. Satellite was mentioned, but satellite capacities are much lower than with fiber optic cables.

The undersea cable repair is now expected to take several weeks…

December 31, 2006 @ 10:17 am | Comment

Danfried, I am so accustomed to an achingly slow Internet in China that I can’t be surprised or upset if it slows down again after I arrive. It’s what I’m used to; anything faster than a tortoise pace and I’ll be delighted.

December 31, 2006 @ 12:23 pm | Comment

Richard, it’s too bad you had such an unpleasant experience in the past. I too had to deal with a terribly overloaded local ISP, Bluewave, when I lived near BLCU at Hua Qing Jia Yuan in 2002. At that time I could barely read Chinese (not that I’m literate now), and so I don’t know if local websites were much faster.

When I moved into my second apartment at Fu Run Jia Yuan (at the intersection of Chengfu Lu and Xueyuan Lu) and switched to China Netcom (中国网通), I noticed download speeds increased tremendously — when I downloaded episodes of the Daily Show, I easily got around 250 kilobytes/s — not as fast as if I was located in North America, of course, but a tremendous leap in speed from Bluewave; with them I rarely got above 20 KB/s.

Now when I look for an apartment, the kind of broadband available — LAN, cable, or DSL — and who the service provider is are prime considerations! Don’t assume you need to settle for slow access.

Unfortunately, this afternoon congestion looks up again. Local download speeds are fine, but I’m getting timeouts again on some North Am sites.

December 31, 2006 @ 2:18 pm | Comment

I lived in an apartment complex at Tuan Jie Hu and when they told me the rent included broadband I was ecstatic. Most of the time, I was in tears trying to get any page to open. It was totally hit or miss, and I got used to constant frustration. It was 2002.

Any recommendations about what I should choose – cable, DSL…? I use DSL in Taiwan and also in Hong Kong and it was great. Of course, I learned never to make assumptions when it comes to China. What’s great in Taipei might be a misery in Beijing. Any tips about broadband in Beijing will be joyfully accepted.

December 31, 2006 @ 2:27 pm | Comment

I stayed at a Chinese friend’s apartment in Haidian last year – she kept a dial-up connection because it was faster than her supposed broadband.

January 1, 2007 @ 3:02 am | Comment

Hey everybody! Dajia nihao!

I’d point out a week before the earthquake China Netcom, China Telecom and others, with Verizon (those soulless bastards) announced they were planning a direct cable from the US to Qingdao/Shanghai in 2007. So Xinnian kuaile, and sit tight. The oligarchy of doom will deliver your porn soon enough.

Meanwhile, Richard, have you retrieved any empty bottles of Jameson from the Taiwan Strait? I think I stuffed a Verizon phone bill in one of ‘em.

January 1, 2007 @ 3:58 am | Comment

“I think you’re referring to the ORIGINAL 12 DNS root servers that were located in the U.S. There are now over 30 spread around the world.”

Dan, your knowledge of the internet is horribly wrong, those master DNS servers still exist, the other ones around the world still update from those original servers. The UN tried to get a hold of those servers about 2 years ago and ICANN rebuffed them.

As for the great firewall, one of the features are relatively few access points as the physical archictecture. That is why northern china was still able to get out through the Tianjin access point.

January 1, 2007 @ 5:20 am | Comment

While my first two apartments used a LAN system (you could plug your computer into an Ethernet port in the apartment wall), I’m currently using China Netcom’s DSL service, and the speeds are decent when downloading stuff from Asia — maybe a total of 140 KB/s for all my torrents through Bittorrent, though usually not more than 70 KB/s for any individual torrent. Upload speeds are also decent — a total of 60 KB/s, which helps with webcams and Bittorrent.

Because of the decent upload speeds, I actually do better with Bittorrent here than with Rogers Cable in Southern Ontario, which throttles upload speeds.

Note that I’m using kiloBYTEs per second, not kiloBITs which a lot of ISPs still use in their advertising.

Nan, being currently blocked from much of Wikipedia, I just went from the entry at Answers.com, which copies it’s entries from Wikipedia:

http://www.answers.com/topic/root-server

“The first point of entry for resolving a domain name, there are currently 34 root servers throughout the world operated by government agencies and private organizations, all of which contain the same data. The original 13 root servers (named A through M), came under a denial of service (DoS) attack in late 2002, and some of them were temporarily knocked out of service. Subsequently, additional servers were deployed.”

After reading your latest post, I went back and saw that the entry below that, for “root nameserver” says:

“There are currently 13 root name servers, with names in the form letter.root-servers.net where letter ranges from A to M :”

So perhaps you can answer for me, if you have direct access to Wikipedia and can check the dates — are “root server” and “root nameserver” two different things, and just coincidentally originally both numbered 13; or is the second entry outdated, and more servers were added?

Anyway Nan, I still think your understanding is wrong. If all Internet data must flow through the original 13 servers, then how was the Internet able to continue working within China? How was I able to communicate with HK and South Korea if I was cut off from North America?

According to what I’ve read about DNS, that info gets cached in many lower servers, so you do NOT have to access the top 13 or 34 or whatever to communicate.

January 1, 2007 @ 10:32 am | Comment

Well, I decided not to be lazy and checked original sources.

There is still a limit of 13 root server NAMES (A-Root, B-Root, etc.), but in reality each is distributed among many physical servers.

http://root-servers.org/

Here is a picture of how the servers are distributed for F-Root, which has a server located in Beijing:

http://www.isc.org/ops/f-root/

Anyway, whether you are talking about “root server”, “root nameserver”, or whatever, my point remains — all Internet traffic does NOT have to flow through North America.

January 1, 2007 @ 11:01 am | Comment

From Nanjing, Wednesday-Saturday was mostly an exercise in “Cannot find server”, although Indian newspaper sites, occasional glimpses of Yahoo, and a (mercifully localized) Google helped slow the atrophy China Daily Online will induce after repeated viewings. A lone bright spot that loaded without fail was Danwei.org. New Year’s Eve was the first day I was able to load other sites, at varying speeds and with all the bells & whistles turned off in Preferences. Today, New Year’s Day, it’s molasses-in-winter slow (The Duck takes several minutes to load) but it’s going.

January 1, 2007 @ 11:04 am | Comment

The goat kebab is as always completly clueless and wrong yet feels free to continue to embarass himself shamelessly with his display of ignorance.

In laymen’s terms “teh intarn3t” is a distributed network with multiple levels of redundancy and fault tolerance. The 13 original root servers (IP address really) as Danfried mentions do not have any actual role persay in the operation of the net. No information passes through them and the physical servers themselves are not actually located within the United States but spread out through as of November 27, 2006, 122 servers around the world.

The reason for the internet “outage” in Asia is the temporary loss of an underwater cable. This has forced traffic to and from Asia to search for alternative paths, in effect causing as digital traffic jam as other network paths are overloaded.

To use another traffic analogy, think of DNS and domain registrations as road signs on a highway. Exit 10 miles, truck stop 15 miles, Road closed ahead, turn right, turn left, etc. It saves time instead of having to type something like 128.158.12.48 everytime you vist http://www.nanheyangrouchuansmells.com. Control of domain name registration is really much ado about nothing.

January 1, 2007 @ 12:01 pm | Comment

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/6.04/kashpureff.html

Those 13 top level domain name servers are still the masters that the lower level ones around the world still query. ICANN allowed a more distributed network for 1. internet speed and 2. political battles thanks to thuggish third world leaders wanting to control what their people see.

As for traffic having to travel through the US, most of it does because most of the fiber networks orginated in the US. Go ahead and trace route a site in europe from china and see which direction the trace goes.

As for jing, looks like you’ve got some reading to do. Bad China, bum expats.

January 2, 2007 @ 1:47 am | Comment

Jing is always like that.

Jing, be nicer, okay? You have a lot more credibility when you make your case without the insults. Happy New Year.

January 2, 2007 @ 2:06 am | Comment

By now it’s obvious you know that the system is distributed. And now you say MOST data HAPPENS to goes through North America, while before you claimed that ALL data MUST go through North America. Sorry, we notice the difference. On this issue there is no point in arguing anymore, since you have changed your stance.

And referring to an EIGHT YEAR OLD article about the Internet? That refers to a completely different issue — it’s not about physical control of servers, but about who gets to control the issue of new domain names.

And as a Canadian, the idea that a monopoly on this should be held by an American organization is about as appealing to me as the idea of George Bush being the world’s leader.

Earlier this year, there was some brouhaha, with Americans complaining that the Chinese should not have gone ahead and started to use Chinese-language top-level domain names, after they had waited YEARS for the Americans to deal with the issue. It turned out to be overblown, but on this issue I side totally with China and all the other countries that don’t have English as their first language. On this and certain other issues (such as the shortage of IP addresses), the American Internet authorities have not been serving the rest of the world well.

Claiming the U.S. should be in charge because
“they invented it” is like saying the U.S. should be in charge of all the world’s telephone systems because of Alexander Graham Bell. Sorry, I don’t buy it.

January 2, 2007 @ 11:23 am | Comment

And you had to acquiesce on your point about the 13 servers. They are THE TOP NAME DOMAIN SERVERS of the whole world. The servers distributed below them still have to back to the ICANN servers to update their translation lists.

The battle over the TLDS’s was not due to english language issues (stop watching Da Shan and reading People’s Daily) but due to wanting to control the master access list of the internet. Some people just can’t handle the truth. The UN and its band of Third World Thuggery will never get its hands on those servers and China’s mischief at creating competing servers just goes to show how fearful the CCP is of the truth.

Canadian opinion? Ask a Quebecois…and we’ll keep taking your best comedians and actors.

Try harder next time son.

January 2, 2007 @ 12:54 pm | Comment

Nan, you just can’t quit while you’re behind, can you?

You were the one who first brought up the idea that all the world’s Internet data flowed through thirteen physical servers, which you claimed were all located in a single U.S. city.

You’ve been shown every element of that statement is wrong. I didn’t even bother mentioning that even these 13 root server NAMES are not all under the control of U.S. companies — for example, the M Root is run from Tokyo, and the K Root from an Amsterdam-based company — because I was just disputing your original claim.

As for who should control domain names, it wasn’t just China that wanted a say. Pretty much the entire rest of the world did, including the European Union and many Asian countries.

But you just go on drinking the Bush Cool-Aid about the U.N. I’m even hoping the next U.S. ambassador to the U.N. is just like Bolton. There’s no need for other countries to undermine U.S. soft power when it is doing such a wonderful job of shooting itself in the foot.

January 2, 2007 @ 1:18 pm | Comment

Okay, maybe it’s time to move on. I think we’ve exhausted this point….

January 2, 2007 @ 1:23 pm | Comment

The only one that is off shore is the M server, trace routes reveal that ALL other servers are on the US. The M server is based in Orlando Fl.

So I’m wrong on one count (but Japan is a US ally against Bad China) but you are wrong on all other counts. You really bite maple syrup boy. You talk about “internationalism” and yet your country is way out of bounds on the Kyoto treaty and has done nothing to stem its emissions. Just sign the document and continue on with business as usual. Live the lie dude, just the Europeans. And what is the condition of the land that the tar sands and oil shales are in? I can tell you its pretty bad, lakes of brackish water and giant black pits. It is so bad that people in Wyoming and Colorado are banning any digging until a long list of stringent environmental requirements are met.

Yeah, Canada, keep lying to yourself. BTW, you’ll never find a pro-Bush post with my name on it.

At least the US has the guts to just say no to Kyoto, knowing it is a “pollute for free” card for the rest of the world. You people with your “internationalist values” speak with a forked tongue.

Go embalm yourself in a bottle of Tiger.

January 2, 2007 @ 1:41 pm | Comment

Wait, “living the lie, just like the Europeans”? I know at least Britain and France have already met their emission targets. As for hypocrisy – a great many Canadians have actually decried the idiocy of the Harper administration in completely wiping the Protocol from the agenda.

Perhaps you aren’t a Bush supporter, but you are certainly defensive enough about America and scornful enough of international regimes to be one.

January 2, 2007 @ 8:45 pm | Comment

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4849672.stm

http://www.cbc.ca/world/story/2006/11/16/kyoto-ambrose.html

http://news.independent.co.uk/environment/article335198.ece

So what was that about the UK, France and Canada? None is meeting their pledged goals and talking about relying on emissions trading as a way to meet them (which is just some accounting smoke and mirrors).

Yeah, Canada is going to cut back on lucrative tar sands production…sure. International institutions start out with high goals but except for conventions on kiddie porn its all just grandstanding by leaders then duck-n-cover spinning of the failure to meet those pledges.
Hey, look at all of the countries that have yet to pitch in a dime for the Indonesian tsunami.

January 2, 2007 @ 9:28 pm | Comment

I didn’t defend Canada dishonouring itself on the matter of the Kyoto Protocol. I defended Canadians with “internationalist” values (which btw are Wilsonian values and therefore also quintessentially American values) who don’t support Harper’s energy policies, certainly didn’t vote for his party, and therefore don’t deserve to be painted with the same broad brush.

As for the European countries – point taken. I’m not a fan of the ETS neither (which so far has been nothing short of a mess.) But there is a yawning chasm of a difference in commitment level between a country like the U.S., which is still twiddling its thumbs on those ever-increasing GHG emissions, and a country like the UK, which despite its failure to meet the goals it set for itself has gone above and beyond the Kyoto targets.

And yes, regrettably some treaties (in particular those dealing with human rights, the environment and arms control) are largely aspirational. But the bankruptcy of international regimes has become something of a naturalized trope in neocon circles, hasn’t it? So what’s the alternative? Disregard those regimes altogether, throwing the baby out with the bathwater (so to speak)? You tell me.

To the rest: sorry for getting so off-topic. In my defense though, Danfried started it. Then Mr. Lamb Kebab rushed in with a whole bunch of “tu quoque, tu quoque!” arguments.

January 3, 2007 @ 3:32 am | Comment

“But there is a yawning chasm of a difference in commitment level between a country like the U.S., which is still twiddling its thumbs on those ever-increasing GHG emissions, and a country like the UK, which despite its failure to meet the goals it set for itself has gone above and beyond the Kyoto targets.”

Bush’s and Darth Cheney’s faults aside, you may not pay enough attention to the fact that almost 20 states have laws demanding that around 10% of energy come from non-fossil fuel sources.

The US’s ability to produce large amounts of vegetable and animal waste has led to what may be already the world’s largest biodiesel market, with truckers giving biodiesel higher marks than regular diesel in all categories except cold weather starts. Private ventures involving cellulose ethanol are popping everywhere. The US may have some short comings compared to Europeans overall mentality regarding effieciency, but we’ve grown tired of financing terrorism with our gas tanks.

As for internationalism, there are quite a few Americans including myself who are internationalists. But the realist in me says that the current international system is junk. The UN has been led by a guy who lived in a NY state taxpayer funded housing unit while letting political allies and family stay in his UN funded private residence ( so NY and US taxpayers foot the bill so that Koffi Annan can set up his political future). UN representatives and their staff regulary get away with raping, assaulting and stealing from NYC residents then hide behind diplomatic immunity, with the worst offenders being from the Third “Turd” world, people who are already accustomed to stepping on everyone around them. Defending yourself against a UN thug risks landing YOU in jail. Who is saving Darfur? Not the AU or the UN. Instead people demand the US do something, but do it according to a laundry list of international requirements, just like Croatia.

And in addition to the poison pills of generalissimos, el presidentes and “people’s dicators”, the influence of MNCs has all but eroded any legitamacy that internationalism has left.

Reduce GHGs? That is for other people to do, each country has plenty of good reasons why they should be excluded in one way or another.

The US produces 20% to 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions, but we also produce 26% of the world’s GDP. No one else produces that much.

January 3, 2007 @ 9:42 am | Comment

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