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On the eve of Tiananmen anniversary, a new tool for tracking Web outages

By Matthew Shaer / June 3, 2009

A man dressed as a Chinese PLA soldier stages a one man protest to mark the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown in Hong Kong on June 3, 2009. June 4 marks the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. A new tool, Herdict, is helping users around the globe track web outages in countries such as China.

Mike Clarke/AFP

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In the US, the government keeps its nose out of the business of the average Internet user. (Well, mostly.) But in more restrictive societies, such as China and Iran, citizens live under an umbrella of cyber-restriction. How can Westerners track which sites are down, and where? For years, news of Web outages traveled by word of mouth – or from instant message to instant message.

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No longer.

A new site called Herdict, which was developed by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, is now effectively providing users everywhere a glimpse behind the digital curtain. Herdict – a portmanteau of "herd" and "verdict" – harnesses the experiences of thousands of users, and produces a dynamic, regularly updated report on global web accessibility. The site was launched in February, but it's getting one of its first major tests today, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square disaster.

Herdict users individual reports from users to measure the level of restriction on any given day. Today, unsurprisingly, the outlook is pretty grim. According to Herdict, 171 users have reported Twitter down. 110 users have written to say that YouTube was inaccessible; 64 can't get onto blogger.com.

On a chart that measures web inaccessibility over the past month, China's levels are spiking – hard. But before June 2, levels remained relatively flat. The same thing can't be said for Iran. In that country, users have consistently reported widespread outages, across a wide range of sites. As of this afternoon, 110 sites had been reported inaccessible, with 44 unique instances.

For more on Herdict, take a listen to this podcast interview with Jonathan Zittrain, one of the founders of the site.

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