Science, Tech & Environment

Questions remain about the web crash in China, one of the biggest internet failures ever

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Credit: REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic

A picture illustration shows icons of WeChat and Weibo app in Beijing, December 5, 2013.

If you were trying to get online in China Tuesday, you might have been out of luck. The country just experienced one of its biggest internet outages ever.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Most of China’s 500 million internet users couldn't get onto some of the most popular sites in China for up to eight hours.

According to Paul Mozur, reporter for The Wall Street Journal in Beijing, the cause of the crash still remains unclear. But what seems certain is that a lot of users were sent to an IP address run by a company called Direct Internet Technology, which is based in North Carolina.

Direct Internet Technology, Mozur says, is run by Bill Xia, a well-known practitioner of Falun Gong, which is a spiritual sect that was banned in China in the late 1990s.

"Direct Internet Technology rents server space from another company registered in Wyoming," he says and it "helps users evade the Great Firewall, China's censorship of the internet."

The company has not told Mozur where these servers are located, but he says it's most likely that they are located in California.

Mozur says it seems like there was a "slip-up" in the Great Firewall that sent massive amounts of traffic to this one IP address, causing it to crash.

The Chinese authorities have blamed the outage on a cyber attack, but security experts tell Mozur a different story.

"[They say] that in fact what seems to have happened is that the Chinese were playing with the Great Firewall, adjusting it, and they themselves inadvertently sent all this traffic this way," he says.

Mozur says this has happened twice before, once in 2002 and then again a year and a half ago.

In 2002, for example, when users wanted to go on a popular news website called sina.com, they were sent to a Falun Gong website instead.

As a result of Tuesday's outage, many Chinese businesses lost money, Mozer says, and it angered many in China. According to Mozur, the Chinese foreign ministry say they have contacted the US, and that the US is investigating the outage.

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