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China blocks encrypted Wikipedia ahead of Tiananmen Square anniversary

The Chinese government is cracking down on the encrypted version of Wikipedia, cutting off the ability to access the online encyclopedia via its HTTPS address, which has been active since 2011.

The move comes ahead of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, which saw troops with assault rifles and tanks inflict thousands of casualties on unarmed civilians trying to block the military’s advance on Tiananmen Square in the heart of Beijing, which student demonstrators had occupied for seven weeks.

By blocking the encrypted version of Wikipedia, the government has effectively ensured that people will be forced to use the HTTP version of Wikipedia, which means that they won’t be able to see certain banned articles.

According to monitoring site Great Fire, the government has managed to restrict access to the online encyclopedia by using a method known as port blocking. HTTPS connections are generally established on port 443 while HTTP connections are on port 80. By blocking port 443, Chinese authorities force people to access the site through port 80.

“The HTTPS version of Wikipedia is blocked while the HTTP version is not. This method forces users in China to use the unencrypted HTTP version, which is subject to keyword filtering,” says the monitoring site.

As Great Fire notes, it’s a little surprising that authorities took so long to twig that people were accessing an uncensored version of Wikipedia in this way. It suggests that a possible explanation lies in the fact that Wikipedia uses HTTP by default, with users having to specify that they want the HTTPS version.

Great Fire has urged Wikipedia to switch to HTTPS as a default, in a bid to force authorities to completely block the site or leave it alone. It thinks “based on the existing evidence, it’s more likely that [the Great Firewall] would leave Wikipedia alone”.