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China blocks iTunes over all-star Tibet album free download

By Hannah Fletcher in Beijing
As published August 22, 2008, by The Times

Apple’s online music store, iTunes, has been blocked in China after more than 40 Olympic athletes downloaded a pro-Tibet album from the site.

Consumers in China began inundating Apple help forums on Monday, saying that they could not access iTunes. Earlier on the same day the US-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) announced that 46 athletes from America, Europe and even Beijing had used the site to download Songs for Tibet, which had been offered to them free.

The album, produced by the Art of Peace Foundation and promoted by the ICT, features 20 songs from highprofile artists including Sting, Moby, Damien Rice and Alanis Morissette.

It was put on iTunes on August 5, three days before the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

“We don’t know why the Chinese Government has blocked iTunes, but it seems the most logical explanation is that it is because of us,” Michael Wohl, the executive director of the Art of Peace Foundation, told The Times. “One side of my brain says it must be. The other side is just incredulous that our simple, non-violent action could have caused this.”

Kate Saunders, from the ICT, said however that the hostile reaction was entirely predictable after violent rioting in China’s Tibetan region in March and an Olympic torch relay dogged by international pro-Tibet protests.

“The album was released at a politically sensitive time,” Ms Saunders said. “We spread the word around the athletes before the Games that we were offering it to them for free.

“Certainly, we did intend the downloads to be a subtle form of protest for the athletes, as well as an act of solidarity for the Tibetan people.”

Athletes were encouraged to play the album on their iPods during their time in Beijing, in what the ICT called “a simple yet powerful symbol of personal freedom”. Ms Saunders said that the response from the athletes had been very positive. One unidentified athlete sent a message thanking the foundation for its “efforts, music and passion for peace”., a website run by the Chinese Government’s Information Office, reported that the country’s internet users were incensed by the album and were “rallying together to denounce Apple” and ban the singers and producers from the country.

The article said that some Chinese would boycott all Apple products, a potential blow for a company that opened its first shop in China one month ago in Beijing and wishes to set up many more. Steve Jobs, Apple’s chief executive and a practising Buddhist, is also negotiating with Chinese mobile phone operators to introduce the iPhone.

Mr Wohl insisted: “iTunes is just an innocent bystander. The album is being sold in hundreds of other stores. It would have been stranger if iTunes had not taken our album. Then that would have been a major political issue.”

The disappearance of iTunes behind the “Great Firewall” of China comes in the midst of the Beijing Olympics when the Government promised free and unfettered internet access for journalists. While it has lifted blocks on some sites, many are still inaccessible.

IT analysts said there was no doubt that the store had been blocked and that it was not merely experiencing a technical fault. Apple acknowledged that there was a problem but refused to comment. Yuna Huang, the company’s Beijing publicist, said: “We’ve seen the situation but can’t offer any more information.”

The censorship could backfire. Mr Wohl said that since the iTunes site had gone down many people in Beijing, including athletes, had asked for the album.

“Obviously there are a million different ways of getting an album to somebody,” he said.

© Copyright 2008 Times Newspapers Ltd.


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