Internet users in China have been
complaining this week that they cannot access Apple’s iTunes Store. The
start of the problems coincided with an announcement from an activist
group which said that around 40 Olympic athletes had downloaded a
pro-Tibet benefit album that was also carried on iTunes.

The IDG News Service reported Friday
that the page for the “Songs for Tibet” album, which
includes 20 songs from artists like Sting, Dave Matthews and Moby,
could not be reached within China. Michael Wohl, executive director of
the Art of Peace Foundation, which produced the album, cited comments
on YouTube which said a video promoting the album might also be inaccessible in China.

Mr. Wohl said that while he had no proof, it appeared that the
Chinese government had blocked iTunes and the Amazon and YouTube links
using the “Great Firewall of China,” as the government’s Internet
control mechanisms are known. Expatriate iTunes users in China also
concluded on Apple’s customer service forums that the government was blocking the site.

There is no iTunes store aimed at the Chinese market, so those
affected are mostly foreigners trying to reach versions of the store
intended for the United States and Canada. A site
that says it checks the availability of specific Internet addresses
from China reported that both the YouTube and Amazon pages in question
could not be accessed in either Shanghai or Beijing.

An Apple spokesman would not comment on the problem Thursday night.
Chinese authorities either would not comment or had no information, the
Associated Press reported.

The “Songs for Tibet” album was released exclusively on iTunes on
Aug. 5, just before the opening of the Beijing Olympics. The Art of
Peace Foundation, in conjunction with groups like the International
Campaign for Tibet, also offered free downloads of the album to Olympic
athletes through a special site unaffiliated with iTunes.

The International Campaign for Tibet then announced on Monday
that over 40 Olympians had taken up the offer to download the album.
Chinese users began reporting problems with iTunes that same day.

The Chinese authorities have tried to suppress protests in support
of Tibet, which it views as a renegade province. They began criticizing
the album even before Monday’s announcement. A government-run website,, reported on Aug. 8 that “Songs for Tibet” had “ignited strong indignation” in the country.

The site also said some Chinese citizens were planning to boycott
Apple products, including the iPhone, and wanted to ban the artists
featured on the album from entering the country.

Mr. Wohl said the article incorrectly said the album advocated Tibetan independence.

“We’re only asking for freedom of expression in Tibet,” he said.
“We’re trying to celebrate a culture. The only way you could have a
problem with that is if you’re trying to eradicate that culture.”

Either way, the controversy could hurt Apple’s attempts to expand
in China. The company recently opened its first store in Beijing, but
does not yet have an agreement with a wireless carrier to sell the
iPhone in China.

David Wolf, a consultant based in Beijing, wrote in his blog that Apple was using a “bi-polar approach” by featuring “Songs for Tibet.”

“Apple — and its shareholders — must recognize that its own actions
are sabotaging its efforts to build a market in China right as those
efforts are showing fruit,” Mr. Wolf wrote.

But Apple was far from the only retailer carrying the album. Scores
of others, including Wal-Mart and Best Buy, were selling it, Mr. Wohl

While the effect this issue might have on Apple is unknown, Mr.
Wohl sees a lot of upside for his group and other backers of Tibet.

“The more they continue to block this,” he said, “the more we’re raising awareness of what’s going on over there.”

Credit : (Bernie Becker)