Olympics: China banishes iTunes

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The Apple iTunes store Web site and all 8 million or so of its songs, (“Imagine an entertainment superstore that’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week” the site urges) are not available in China and haven’t been for more than a week. Not a great loss for iTunes in the very short run, it hasn’t made a great effort to target the China market, but most likely damaging for Apple’s future efforts there. Apple still hasn’t found a Chinese carrier to partner with to support the iPhone, though it is actively looking for one.

As of Saturday evening in Hong Kong, Apple has issued only a mild response. “We are aware of the logon problems but we have no comment at the moment,” Huang Yuna, an Apple spokeswoman in Beijing told AP. She declined to say how many customers were believed to be affected.

The shutdown apparently came after about 40 athletes at the Games downloaded a pro-Tibet benefit album, “Songs for Tibet”, which includes 20 songs from artists like Sting, Dave Matthews and Moby. Someone noticed the traffic, the term “Tibet” most likely set off an alarm, and down came the site.

The album was released exclusively on iTunes on Aug. 5, just before the Games opened.  The Art of Peace Foundation had partnered with several Tibet support groups to produce the album as a fundraiser, and also gave the athletes at the Games free downloads.

China has not shown Apple’s restraint in commenting on the situation. According to China.org.cn (run by the China Internet Information Center, it should be seen as a semi-official site, authorized by the government):

A music album advocating “Tibetan independence” recently available for paid download on iTunes has ignited strong indignation among Chinese netizens.

According to Chinanews.com, the angry netizens are rallying together to denounce Apple in offering “Songs for Tibet” for purchase. They have also expressed a wish to ban the album’s singers and producers, most notably Sting, John Mayer, and Dave Matthews, from entering China.

Many people have made remarks on online forums to express their anger, even those who have been fans of the artists in the past.

Some say they will boycott all Apple products from now on, including the popular iPhone, which is not available in China since negotiations among Apple, China Mobile and China Unicom broke down.

What this amounts to is pretty much a government-supported call for a boycott of Apple and iTunes.

An indicator of the government’s anti-Apple wrath, and what might come next? The entire iTunes site is blocked. The album’s promo site on YouTube is unavailable, though YouTube, which has seen its site shut down totally at times, as during the ethnic rioting in Tibet in March, is still available. And on Amazon, just the site supporting the album is blocked, the rest of Amazon.com is still available. In the States, WalMart (which has a large presence in China) and Best Buy (which will open about 20 stores in China this year) are carrying the album.

(Reporting from Hong Kong)