On December 19, the NYTimes.com site was apparently blocked all across China. For the sake of completeness, these followups.
1) Could the problem be related to a recent physical break in three of the four main internet cables connecting Asia to North America? (As reported here and elsewhere.) Maybe -- but at face value that wouldn't seem to explain why the NYTimes.com site loads at normal speeds when you're using a VPN but times-out when you try it through the plain, old, Great Firewall-screened Chinese internet. It also wouldn't explain why most other international sites seem to behave normally.
When the main undersea cable off Taiwan was cut in an earthquake nearly two years ago, you knew it immediately. Internet traffic in most parts of Asia was either interrupted altogether or brought to 300-baud dialup modem speeds. But maybe this recent break somehow contributes to the NYT problem?
2) After the jump, tech details on an important point I didn't mention: Consistent with hit-or-miss, far-from-airtight nature of Great Firewall censorship, even when the site www.nytimes.com is blocked, http://nytimes.com is not. Go figure. Also, various mobile web devices seem to be able to reach any site they want.
3) I mentioned yesterday that exactly one person, from Guangdong province, had written to say that he could reach the NYT site with no problem. I heard from him again just now. Today his connection is blocked. The change in my situation is the reverse. I started having NYT problems last night -- but at the moment, it's working fine, even with the VPN turned off. It's the mystery and miracle of Christmas. Tech details below.
UPDATE: From a friend who knows the nuances of high-level Communist Party maneuvering far better than I do, this hypothesis about what's going on:
I suspect that while the reason behind this blocking is not yet clear, the process--and thereby the motivation--might be a bit less obscure. That is, given that consensus drives policy decisions here, it is very likely that different parts of the bureaucracy weighed in and officials each had a gripe with the NYT coverage of some or another issue. Collectively, they were able to push through a directive to block it.
The people here overseeing foreign journalists also know that there will soon be a new contingent manning the desks of the NYT bureau here. Those officials want to send a clear signal that they expect more positive ("objective") coverage of China.
I suppose all will be revealed in due time. Or maybe never.
From reader d'Arcy Saum:
I've been following your blog about the block and one nice thing to note is that the reason why the homepage still loads is that you -- and I assume many other people -- enter http://nytimes.com into the browser (as opposed to www.nytimes.com). [JF note: oddly, even www.nytimes.com works for me now.]
nytimes.com has the unblocked IP address 22.214.171.124 while www.nytimes.com has the blocked address 126.96.36.199.
When you click on any link from the homepage, you are sent to www.nytimes.com and, since the corresponding address is blocked, you get a timeout. However, if you simply remove the "www." in the address bar the page loads without a problem and you are free to read whatever content you'd like.
The really nice thing about this little loophole is that you can very easily tell your computer to always use the unblocked address when it asks for a page from www.nytimes.com by modifying the "hosts" file (/etc/hosts on the Mac c:\windows\system32\drivers\etc\hosts on Windows).
Open that file and simply add the following on a new line:
and presto - unblocked New York Times!
Or, presto, the internet police in China could decide to stop this sillyness -- as, based on past performance, they probably will in day or two (and move on to some other site).