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18 Harry Potter in Beijing
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47 In a Barbie World
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51 Of 'Mice' and Men
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55 Guanxi Building
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Trouble on the Farms

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Under threat. Temminck's Tragopan... and Flickr

Farm 3 and farm 5 to be precise.  So far, farms 4, 2 and 1 are trouble-free.  If all of this sounds a little bizarre, I know how you are feeling. This morning, I received a note on my Flickr account from someone in China who also has "farm trouble". He or she had added a comment to the front page of my photostream.  Instead of congratulating me on getting a shot of the very elusive male Temminck's Tragopan, which I had taken on my recent visit to Emei Shan (previous article), the note simply said:   

  “OK, so you've got the same problems as me: farm3 seems to be blocked since the start of this week.”   
  
  I'm a keen Flickr user, and thought I was fairly conversant with the site’s shorthand, but I had no idea what a farm was. A quick trawl of the Internet and Flickr's own discussion groups gave me the answer: 


   A farm is a Flickr server.  All of the many millions of photos that are stored by Flickr are loaded on to one (of five) of then.  Farms 3 and 5 are the ones that are currently used.  Oddly, except for the photos on my front page, all of my photos on these two farms have been replaced with blank boxes. 


  Older photos that were loaded on to farms 4, 2, and 1 can still be seen.  Farm 4 was used as recently as three months ago.  I checked the URLs of photos going back to 2007 and found that both farms 1 and 2 were in commission that year.

 

This poses more than a few problems for me.  Not only can I (and other Flickr members similarly afflicted) not see the majority of recent photos on my Flickr account; the “photostream” and “wild water” sections of this website have also been badly affected – because I link them via html code to the photos that reside on the Flickr farms:


  There are white spaces where farm 3 or farm 5 photos should be, while farm 4 photos can be seen (right click on the photo or empty space and you can see which farm it’s on).  Wonderful!  So, my long-suffering visitors from China (both of them) can’t see most of my photos and none of my videos (which are linked by html to You Tube, which has been blocked here since March of last year).  By the way, in case you weren’t aware, joy of joys, Facebook and Twitter are also blocked (find out more about The Great Firewall of China by scrolling down to my 8th August 2009 article, “Watch with Mother”).   


  More digging unearthed an unexpected and somewhat chilling twist: The problem is, it seems, confined to China Unicom subscribers. Subscribers of China Telecom, its main competitor, are reportedly unaffected. A novel way to build your brand and develop close relationships with your customers to be sure.


  Conspiracy theories are already circulating. One user suggested that the Flickr mail he received just after the problem started, offering him a VIP membership of tuhigh.com, a photo sharing site that is a Flickr look-alike (except you can see all the photos), was proof that this was an attack prompted by commercial interests. 


  I tried to find out who owns Tuhigh, thinking that this may be significant, but my searches drew a blank.  More likely, there is no conspiracy and Tuhigh is simply spamming China Flickr members opportunistically.  


  Everyone has his or her theory about why this is happening, but not one person (of the dozens who have commented on the Flickr discussion page) believes that Unicom is suffering technical problems. As for my assessment of the situation:


  What I do know is that this is a different kind of blocking (Flickr was blocked last year for a week, following certain events in the far north-west).  But that was an old-fashioned site-name URL blocking (you couldn't see the site at all). This time round you can at least (and it's a small comfort) see all of the comments and text on the website, and you can see many of the older photos.


  I also know that the problem started three days ago – the same day that Google announced their revised China strategy. Coincidence? I doubt it.  

 
  Interestingly, there has been no comment from Yahoo (the owners of Flickr) in respect of the problems its Flickr users are experiencing here.   Following their declaration of support for the principle that Google is fighting for, and the public denouncement by their partners Alibaba (which runs Yahoo in China) that publishing this statement was a "reckless" act, they are probably thinking that they have said enough – for the time being at least. 


  After all, there are still three farms that have, as yet, not being visited by the wolves.

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