The cause of China’s massive internet outage this week, which affected an estimated 200 million users for as long as 24 hours, is something of a mystery. Chinese users trying to reach a range of websites ending in .com were re-routed instead to an IP address owned by Dynamic Internet Technology, an anti-censorship group in the US run by a member of the Falun Gong, a religious organization banned in China.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman said the evidence “shows that China is a victim of hacking,” and was a reminder that international internet security needs to be strengthened. China’s internet officials said the problem was misconfigured domain name servers outside of China, which translate domain names like “Baidu.com” into numeric IP addresses.
But Reuters cited unnamed sources familiar with China’s web management operations who said the malfunction that it may have been an “engineering mistake” that Chinese government employees made while making changes to the country’s “Great Firewall” internet censorship system.
The anti-censorship group Greatfire—which runs a website called FreeWeibo that reveals messages blocked on the popular Sina Weibo platform—has another theory. The Chinese government, they say, may have been trying to thwart Greatfire’s anti-censorship measures, and screwed up. The DNS misdirection was definitely coming from inside of China, not outside it, Greatfire said, because of tests they did of non-China websites from China. (Read their entire explanation here.)
No one can explain, though, why a huge chunk of China’s internet traffic might have been sent to that particular IP address, except, perhaps, for human error. The address (http://188.8.131.52) “is a mirror site for dongtaiwang.com, a news portal operated by Falun Gong groups,” Greatfire notes, operated by “mortal enemy number one” of the Chinese government.
Bill Xia, who created Dynamic Internet Technology in 2001, told the Wall Street Journal (paywall) his company had “nothing to do with the massive shift in traffic.” At the time, the site had no sensitive content on it, Greatfire notes, which would have been unusual if someone was intentionally trying to hack China’s censors.