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Internet Takeover Update: China’s ‘Consensus Net’ Goes Offline

A few months ago, China’s mildly iconoclastic Consensus Media Group began worrying about Beijing’s authoritarian crackdown on “liberal voices in mainland publications.” Since that time, one of the group’s magazines has ceased publication, management has been reshuffled at another, and the popular “Consensus Net” website has suddenly gone dark.

The South China Morning Post describes Consensus Net, also known as Gongshi Web, as “a digital platform founded in September 2009 to carry reports and analysis by both left- and right-wing scholars on topics including history, politics and economics.”

As of Saturday, visitors to the site see a notice that it has been suspended pending “program upgrades.” It doesn’t sound like that upgrade will be completed anytime soon:

Zhou Zhixing, founder of Consensus Net and a well-connected publisher and political commentator, said the website had not been shut down by the authorities, but he was uncertain about its future.

“It’s hard to predict what will happen in the future but, up to this moment, there is no order to stop the operation of the website,” he said.

Zhou said he had no idea when the website would reopen.

Not many people seem to believe the authorities had nothing to do with Consensus Net going offline. An anonymous Beijing academic told the SCMP that “intellectuals on the mainland were losing their space to make their opinions public as the authorities tightened their grip.”

Quartz observes:

Cached records on Google provide plenty of example of topics that may have upset the Chinese Communist Party, like this essay (link in Chinese) which praises US democracy as self-improving or this (link in Chinese) which gives a rational analysis of independence movements in China. But it also published analysis that praised the government’s policies, including this (link in Chinese) on the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.

Quartz also notes the final Consensus Net post on Weibo (essentially the Chinese version of Twitter) said nothing about “upgrades,” instead merely announcing that the site would be “taking a rest on National Day… for a few days.” China’s National Day was observed on October 1.

China will probably end up with more of a say in global Internet regulation, as the United States hands domain registration off to a multi-national entity. Beijing is already viewed as a model of Internet control by regimes around the world. Will we see more troublesome websites taking suspiciously long “vacations” and installing “program updates” in the years to come?

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