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     Apr 14, 2012

China firewall slams shut
By Martin J Young

HUA HIN, Thailand - The Great Firewall of China came into full force this week when the country was virtually cut off from the rest of the world as the government cracked down on rumors and speculation over the recent scandal involving a top Communist Party leader whose wife is now accused of murdering a British businessman.

The world's largest Internet population, 500 million strong, found itself walled in on Thursday when they could not access any

foreign websites outside of China. Web users in Hong Kong were also affected as they could not access Chinese websites - the People's Republic became a digital island for a few hours.

Some commentators speculated that the outage was caused by damage done to undersea cables following the earthquake near Aceh, Indonesia, earlier this week. Others were closer to the truth accusing the government of heavy-handed censorship since all websites would have been affected if the network was down. Chinese Internet companies have speculated that the Great Firewall was being upgraded and that a big "off" switch for the Internet was being tested.

A wave of Internet postings about party official Bo Xilai, who is currently under investigation, has spurned reaction from the government's burgeoning Internet police force, which resulted in clampdowns on blogging sites and forums.

Two of China's Internet giants, Sina and Tencent, have been recently punished by the government for allowing people to comment freely on micro-blogging website Weibo. Officials warned through state media that the government would punish anyone responsible for spreading rumors online, though they did not refer specifically to the Bo Xilai scandal.

Xinhua also stated that authorities closed 16 websites for spreading rumors of "military vehicles and troops entering Beijing". State television stated that the Internet had "provided space for some people to make up and spread rumors. As long as it is easy to click a mouse, some people can slander others, destroy stability, or even endanger the security of the state".

As the government tightens its control over the Internet, its users are evolving more astute methods of evading censorship such as using language homonyms where two words are written the same but have different meanings. Tracking dissent on the Internet is becoming an uphill battle for the builders of the Great Firewall.

Apple and a number of publishers have been accused by the US Department of Justice of conspiring to raise e-Book prices. It has been alleged in the civil lawsuit that Apple and publishing company executives met to discuss how to respond to regular discounting of e-Books by online retailer Amazon.

The five publishers and Apple hatched an arrangement that raised the price of many best-selling e-books from under US$10 to up to $14.99, according to the suit. The new structure was then to be imposed on Amazon.

Three of the publishers, including number one bookstore Barnes & Noble, settled with the government over the antitrust claims. They will now have to offer discounted e-books, which could result in them taking a loss via the Nook e-reader platform as opposed to the tidy profit previously made by overpriced titles.

Apple and two other publishers denied the accusations with Apple stating that "the launch of the iBookstore in 2010 fostered innovation and competition, breaking Amazon's monopolistic grip on the publishing industry". Pot and Kettle come to mind when a company like Apple talks about monopolies.

Quoting from the late Steve Jobs, the suit cited a passage from his biography where Apple offers publishers an "aikido move" in which they'll "go to the agency model, where you set the price, and we get our 30%, and yes, the customer pays a little more, but that's what you want anyway."

Amazon called the settlement a victory for consumers and users of its Kindle e-reading device. It promised to continue discounting e-Books, which would put pressure on rivals Apple.

The first quarter of 2012 yielded good news for the global PC industry, which posted a slight increase in volume of 2.3% over the same period last year. Industry analysts IDC stated the results were above projections of a further decline due to hard disk supply constraints, economic woes, competition from tablets, and uncertainty about Windows 8.

Hard disk availability, following flooding in Thailand, which produced 40% of the global supply, was the largest factor in limiting the demand for PCs. Large PC manufacturers absorbed a lot of the price increases by maintaining inventory and having better access to hard drive supplies than consumers. Analysts predict growth to continue towards the end of the year when Windows 8 hits the shelves.

Martin J Young is an Asia Times Online correspondent based in Thailand.

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