Thursday, September 02, 2010

Twitter killed in China due to OAuth

Over the coming weeks, Twitter will be making changes that will impact how people use Twitter applications. There are over 250,000 applications built using the Twitter API. To use most applications, a user will first authorize the application to access their Twitter account, after which they can use it to read and post Tweets.

Amongst the more popular applications are desktop applications like TweetDeck, Seesmic, or EchoFon, but there are also web-based and mobile applications. Many allow what is called "basic authorisation" which allows users in countries where Twitter is blocked to still access the site and post Tweets. In China and Iran, Twitter has been used to disseminate information authorities would rather keep under wraps. And despite best efforts they have so far been unable to completely block access to the micro-blogging site.

Now it appears, Twitter is helping to lock out those in countries which operates a restrictive Internet. For sometime Twitter has begun to roll-out "OAuth", a technology that enables applications to access Twitter on the user's behalf with without asking directly for their password. Of course it is more secure, but for those stuck behind the Great Firewall of China, or similar blocks, it now prevents access altogether. It is possible that founder Jack Dorsey, Twitter CEO Evan Williams and co-founder and Creative Director Biz Stone are not even aware that new authorisation rules will affect millions of Twitter users in China, Iran and other countries. But given how Twitter has celebrated the democratisation of the web through its application, it seems to be a major oversight.

OAuth will result in applications no longer being allowed to store passwords and users may require to reauthorize them in order to allow them to continue functioning. For those in the free west, few will even blink as the change takes place. But in countries that censor the web, Twitter will now fall well and truly out of bounds unless Internet users take the plunge and pay for a VPN [Virtual Private Network] or proxy server. For some this is complicated or cost prohibitive. Even with a VPN, access may be further complicated when using mobile devices.

Censoring countries often try shut down or limit access to websites like Google, YouTube and Twitter by using sophisticated web blocking technology. The power of Twitter is that it allows all its data to be used by third parties, through a so called API. This makes it possible for everyone to build their own Twitter application. Since there are so many applications and websites that allow you to use Twitter, it is impossible for those countries to shut them all down. 

But with the roll-out of OAuth such circumvention of the firewalls will end since user information will always have to go to to give a website permission to use their account. So if is blocked in the country where access is sought there will be no way of granting access [].

Some bloggers have suggested various ways to bi-pass the new authorisation rules, but such information will be difficult to access in countries where access to the Internet is restricted. Having to go through some of the complicated procedures involved will prove too much for many users. Of course there are many people still tweeting out of China. Many are expats, who can afford to pay for a VPN which costs upwards of $55 per year. There are Chinese Twitter users too. Some use paid-for VPN, while others use software such as Puff and Freegate, which are free but often unstable.

One Twitter user in China, who goes by the name of longzaijianghu, spoke to tvnewswatch about his difficulties in accessing Twitter in recent months. "It's the problem of OAuth. But I have found Puff to be a very useful software. I can use it to scale the wall at home," he said. But he was wary about using such software elsewhere. "I don't try it in office yet because there's monitoring," he said, "A VPN will be a better choice, and the pity is I cannot access Twitter in office. I hope i can find a better solution."

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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