While the streets of Hong Kong witness mass protests, the Chinese cyberspace is exploding with complaints about yet another case of censorship. Instagram has been banned in mainland China, but it is still available in Hong Kong where pro-democracy students are revolting against Beijing.
Videos and photos of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong have been flooding Instagram for over a week and it looks like the authorities do not want people in mainland China to access them.
Instagram is yet to confirm the block, but it said that it would look into the situation. However, web monitoring services like greatfire.org and blockedinchina.net claim that users in China are not able to access Instagram at the moment.
China has also blocked the hashtag ‘Occupy Central’ on Weibo. Weibo is a microblogging site like Twitter. Chinese users don’t have access to Twitter and Facebook is also banned in the country.
Photos that are shared on Weibo tend to be inaccessible if they include certain keywords. BBC’s Beijing bureau reports that searches for key phrases such as ‘Hong Kong students’ and ‘Occupy Central’ are blocked. The Hong Kong democracy protests are led by students and the Occupy Central movement.
BBC’s Beijing correspondent Celia Hatton said that China’s Internet censors have a tendency of going into overdrive whenever politically sensitive events rock the country.
Instagram is popular with Chinese users. The decision to ban this site may be an indicator of Beijing’s fears that at least some people in China might get inspired by the protestors in Hong Kong.
Instagram is quite popular with Chinese users, probably because several other social networking sites are not available in the country.
This is not the first time that Chinese authorities have targeted Instagram. In July, the messaging app disappeared from Android app stores in China. However, the service remained available to people who had already downloaded it.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the fears of a network shutdown are encouraging people to explore alternative ways of communicating with one another, such as using a Hong Kong VPN. For example, as many as 100,000 people downloaded the Bluetooth powered messenger application FireChat during the last few days. FireChat is a free app developed by Open Garden.
Using Firechat, people can engage in chats with up to 10,000 people. The best thing about this app is that it does not require an Internet connection. It uses the mesh networking technology that allows people to send messages to others in their immediate vicinity provided that they also have the application installed on their device. On the flip side, these discussions are not confidential. In fact, just about anybody in the area can see these messages.
Students in Taiwan also used this app during their anti-China Sunflower movement as it does not rely on a central server.
Instead, it uses peer-to-peer ‘mesh networking’ and connects to phones in the vicinity using Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. In fact, connectivity increases when there is an increase in the number of users in a particular area.
Micha Benoliel, CEO of Open Garden, confirmed that there was a massive spike in the usage of FireChat on Sunday when protests intensified. He said that they noticed a spurt in usage on Saturday, but the numbers just peaked on Sunday.
Protest organizers had urged supporters to download the application because it allows people to communicate anonymously. Developers, however, warned protestors against using their real names because the messages aren’t encrypted.
The recent ban on Instagram is an attempt at cracking down on the sharing of images of protests in mainland China.
Protests are intensifying in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong with thousands of people occupying the streets. They are protesting against China’s refusal to allow them to nominate their candidates for elections in 2017. Only politicians supported by Beijing are allowed to contest the polls.
The movement has been dubbed as Umbrella Revolution by the media because of the use of umbrellas against pepper spray and tear gas. It has encouraged people around the world to take to the streets to express their solidarity with the protestors.
The group, which leads the demonstrations is called Occupy Central with Love and Peace. In its own words, it is a non-violent movement that calls for a democratically elected government in Hong Kong. For the time being, this ban has not affected users in Hong Kong. The first ever polling for electing Hong Kong’s leaders is going to be held in 2017.
The protests began a week ago with students staging sit-ins to urge China to conduct genuine democratic reforms in Hong Kong which is a former British colony. The students have said that they will boycott their classes until officials accede to their demands for local legislature reforms.