A trending and vastly expanding GitHub database where Chinese developers have been airing their workplace grievances may be at risk of censorship. A number of internet users in China are reporting seeing their access to the database cut off when using browsers offered by companies like Tencent, Alibaba, Xiaomi, and Qihoo 360, as first spotted by Abacus. There’s no indication yet that these censorship efforts may have originated from government orders.
Some of the companies that are reportedly blocking access to the GitHub repository are also the same ones being accused of encouraging their employees to work grueling 12-hour days, six days a week without sufficient overtime pay, a coincidence that Chinese developers have been quick to point out. Alibaba’s UC Browser was screenshotted as blocking the database and Alibaba’s name has come up in worker accusations. Alibaba did not respond to comment.
“There’s illegal information on the website you are currently visiting. Please close the page,” a warning on the 360 Browser reads, according to the GitHub user ilaotan. A second user responded, “Looks like all Chinese domestic browsers have restrictions in place. Some won’t let you access the page, others block you from starring the page.” The Verge attempted to verify if the 360 Browser was indeed censored and found that while the repository was accessible, the star feature was blocked. Qihoo 360 did not respond to a request for comment.
Another developer wrote on GitHub, “Use Chrome, never use that kind of garbage,” referring to some of the affected browsers’ reputations for potential security issues. It appears that the browser block is inconsistently reported among users, with some saying they’re able to access the 996.ICU repository through 360 Browser and Xiaomi’s MIUI browser, while others confirm that they can’t access the database through most domestic browsers.
Tencent’s QQ Browser reportedly restricts access, but allows users to enter the page if they insist. Still, one user screenshotted a page from Tencent stating: “This page has been discontinued. According to user complaints and the Tencent Security Response Center, this page contains illegal or transgressive content. In order to maintain a clean internet environment, access has been denied.” Tencent did not respond to a request for comment.
One source told The Verge that the browser block could likely be the result of individual company decisions aimed at quashing criticisms, rather than an order from the Chinese government, as the block only targeted a single page rather than a full domain. A browser-level block of a single offending GitHub repository could be a clever way for Chinese tech companies to remove controversial material while the main GitHub platform stays accessible. It’s not an ideal situation for the companies if GitHub were to go down in China.
“GitHub is used widely by programmers in China for professional reasons. Getting browsers to block it — especially ones on mobile phones like Xiaomi — might be a way around this challenge,” explains Sarah Cook, Freedom House’s senior research analyst for East Asia. “It may be a way of limiting the negative political impact without incurring the collateral damage to IT innovation that a full block would impose.”