China, Tibet and iTunes

The iTunes Music Store suddenly doesn't work in China. Angry downloaders say the Olympic popularity of "Songs for Tibet" is to blame

Published August 20, 2008 2:35PM (EDT)

If it is true that China's government started blocking access to the iTunes Music store on August 18, in retaliation for Apple having the chutzpah to make the compilation album "Songs for Tibet" available for purchase just two days before the Olympics, then we have all the makings of a truly mighty geopolitical superpower showdown.

Steve Jobs vs. China. Who blinks first?

The basic contours of the story are this: Two days before the Olympics began, "Songs for Tibet," featuring ditties sung by Sting, Dave Matthews, and others, debuted on iTunes. Much media attention was subsequently lavished on the news that at least 40 Olympic athletes had downloaded the album. Then, on Tuesday, the Student for a Free Tibet blog reported that commenters on an Apple support forum who lived in China started complaining on Monday that they could no longer access the iTunes Music Store.

There is no conclusive evidence, naturally, that China is blocking iTunes because of its Tibet Independence temerity, but several posters to the support forum declared that their technical analysis revealed that The Great Firewall of China was indeed to blame. One user posted a response purportedly received from Apple technical support.

My name is Bryan and I understand that you have not been able to connect to the iTunes store for the last couple days and that you are concerned that it would be an issue with China blocking the iTunes store. I'm sorry to hear that and I'm happy to assist you with this today.

ITunes is not being blocked in China from our end, but access to the iTunes Store IS restricted in some areas in China. This would also explain why it's happening to your friends there as well.

I would advise that you contact your ISP about this matter. Please also note though that accessing the US iTunes Store outside of the geographic region of the United States is not supported, and that attempting to access it while in China is at your own risk.

The Silicon Hutong blog is dismayed by what it views as an Apple business blunder.

Apple has given the government all the excuse it needs, not only to block the iTunes Music Store, but to raise extra barriers on permits for further Apple retail stores, to throw barriers in the path of Apple's iPhone deals with state-controlled carriers, and to make the creation of a Chinese iTunes Music Store and App Store a distant dream (unless they let the carriers run it.)

Not to mention make the lives of thousands of dedicated Apple customers here in China just a little more miserable -- especially those of us who count on iTMS as our sole source of legitimate (non-pirated) music.

And Apple is alienating the very market it is trying to create in all of these efforts, infuriating the legions of Chinese who believe that the situation in Tibet is far more nuanced than the media, activists, and general public outside of China understand.

My guess is that there was nothing intentionally provocative about Apple's decision to sell "Songs for Tibet" on iTunes. Is there a review process for each new album release to determine its potential political impropriety in various world markets -- even those it doesn't officially support? That would seem unlikely. But it will be interesting to see how far this goes. Because you can bet that if "Songs for Tibet" ever does disappear from the iTunes Music Store, the Internet will explode.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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