Chinese authorities have begun a massive clamp down on social media on the mainland, particularly microblogs, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
Having successfully bullied Apple into blocking sensitive apps like those of the Dalai Lama and Uyghur Rebiya Kadeer, authorities have now set their sights on social networking with the closure of dozens of micro blog accounts.
Blocked last month were four of the leading Chinese micro blogging services, Netease, Sina, Tencent and Sohu, the press freedom watchdog said in a statement.
The sites were reportedly either displaying messages that said they were closed for maintenance or "had inexplicably reverted to an earlier 'beta' testing phase."
Prominent Chinese bloggers, known for raising sensitive issues, have spoken out against the action.
"I was writing a new post and suddenly my blog couldn't open," lawyer Pu Zhiqiang told The Associated Press (AP).
Blogger Yao Yuan, working on a separate unclosed blog, cited at least 61 closed Sohu blogs, including his own. He described the closings as mass murder, AP said.
"If Internet users don't speak out, all sites will be cracked down on in the future," said Mr. Yuan, who owns an Internet-promotion company in Shanghai. "Ordinary people will forever lose their freedom to speak online, and the government can rest without worrying anymore."
RSF says the latest censorship attempt is further indication of the Chinese Communist Party’s mistrust and obsessive control of Chinese people, but suggests that that control is already undermined by the scale of internet use in China.
"Despite the massive resources that the regime deploys to control the Internet, it is impossible to keep track of all the flow of information on Twitter and its Chinese equivalents," the press freedom organization said. "Micro blogging is also used by the government itself as well as by millions of Chinese who have nothing to do with dissidents," they said.
Micro blogs, a form of short blog with a maximum of 140 characters, have become increasingly popular for disseminating social messages and opinions because of their speed and ability to grab people’s attention.
Concerns were raised earlier this year when news service International Data Group (IDG) informed subscribers that certain iPhone applications had been censored in Apples App Store in China.
IDG is the publisher of specialist magazines like Macworld, PC World and Computerworld.
Apps pertaining to Tibetan Leader, the Dalai Lama, and Rebiya Kadeer leader of the Uyghur ethnic minority in China were noticeably blocked, the IT publisher said, a move that implicated US company Apple Inc in the censorship.
Reporters Without Borders said if Apple has been involved in censoring applications, the actions put it on the list of US companies that have compromized their values to gain a foot hold in the Chinese market.
"If Apple has agreed to withdraw some of the App Store products under pressure from the authorities, it will have joined the club of companies that are accomplices to the censorship of news and information in China," RSF said in a statement.
RSF said Apple should, at the least, publish a list of those apps that had been blocked.
"China’s iPhone users have a right to know what they cannot access," RSF said, "For the sake of transparency, Apple should release a complete list of the censored apps–if any are being censored–and the selection criteria used."