The reasons are as varied as the websites themselves and China doesn't just block Internet websites. They monitor the Internet usage of their citizens. There are a number of people in jail - mostly journalists - on charges ranging from signing petitions to speaking out against the Chinese government.
According to greatfire.org, 44 of the Alexa Top 1000 websites are blocked in China. Here are the ten sites that are most popular with users that are currently blocked, as well as the reasons why.
- Various Google properties like Google Docs, Google Drive, Picasa, Gmail and Google +: Most of these have been blocked since 2011 and are still blocked to this day. Picasa has been blocked since July of 2009. The reason for this extraordinary censorship is that China appears to be trying to isolate the web available to Chinese users to only websites that China controls. However, this is bad news for webmasters who miss out on valuable tools like Analytics.
- Facebook: Facebook has been blocked in China possibly longer than any other website. July of 2008 was when the censoring started, and while users can still log onto Facebook using Virtual Private Networks and other tools, for most users, Facebook is a no go. Most people agree that the reason for the block was the riots in Xinjiang four years ago. However, no further details have ever been released.
- YouTube: The largest video sharing website has also been blocked in mainland China, since March of 2009. YouTube is blocked because it showed riots in Tibet, riots that the Chinese government maintains were faked. Apparently, the Chinese government is afraid that some citizens may take their cues from a YouTube video and start a riot themselves.
- Twitter: Twitter has been blocked in China since 2009, and the reason is quite clear. It is easy for people to organize, share and communicate via Twitter, and there is very little that the government can do to monitor or control it. This includes the Twitter domain t.co.
- Wikipedia is an unusual case because it has been blocked and unblocked at least once throughout the censorship history. The reason for the blocking is that Wikipedia is edited by users, and even though the Chinese version of events may be watered down or censored, users can change it to reflect actual events. All languages of Wikipedia are blocked and Wikimedia images as well.
- Blogspot is also blocked in China, most likely because it is a Google property, but also because it is a free and easy platform for those who wish to speak out against the Chinese government to set up a blog to do so.
- Xhamster is one of several pornographic sites that are blocked in China, and is one of the most popular free adult video sites in the world. The reason for the censorship is that the government believes that removing pornographic materials will ensure that Chinese citizens are "hardworking" and "moral." Xhampster is only one of several sites that are blocked.
- Internet Movie Database (IMDB): While there has not been an official statement as to why IMDB was blocked, many believe that a documentary called "When the Dragon Swallowed the Sun" is to blame. The film is about the Dalai Lama and the struggle to free Tibet.
- NYtmes: While the reason for the IMDB block may be unclear, the reasons for the New York Times website censorship are easy to understand. The New York Times has been very vocal about the corruption in the Chinese government, and has posted multiple stories in both print and online publications, speaking out specifically against the money that has been accumulated by the family members of Wen Jiabao, the nation's ex-Prime Minister.
- RedTube.com: This is another one of the pornographic websites featuring adult material that the Chinese government has blocked. As previously mentioned, the government feels that those looking at pornography will not be as morally upright and hardworking as those that do not view it.
With their assortment of techniques to prohibit access to websites they do not like, China is probably the country where the “Site not found” errors are most common, with the possible exception of North Korea. This can be frustrating, especially if your website isn’t intended to be politically subversive in any way, but it happens to contain out-of-context keywords that the Chinese authorities have deemed undesirable. This broad brushstroke is unfortunate, but luckily, there are ways to bypass the China Firewall and get past China’s so-called Golden Shield.
China’s Measures Against Attempts to Bypass the Great Firewall
If your website is inaccessible from China, this can cost you a lot in terms of traffic. If you’re set up to be a vendor of some kind, whether through ecommerce or a file-sharing/ file-storage program such as Dropbox – it can also cost you a great deal of money. The Chinese government has set up multiple avenues of website deflection, in addition to employing over 30,000 formal internet policemen:
- analysis of nearly all incoming data to the People’s Republic of China using a limited number of access points;
- keyword-based IP address denials, if you’re trying to access internal content from China that is prohibited to outsiders;
- employing the net-mirrors that bounce information from fiber-optic cable ports to actively scan on-page content.
Because some websites do bypass the China Firewall, the exact extent of these measures, while far-reaching, does seem sporadic at times. For example, you might be able to bypass the firewall in one province, but fail to get through to the computers in another Chinese province or administrative district. When you add this to the fact that websites with seemingly innocuous content are prohibited, you can be left in the dark as to whether you have access to a constant audience in mainland China.
Luckily, we have developed such a tool which is freely available to you, and you can use it here.
The tool requires you to enter your URL in the provided box, and will use servers in New York to make sure your ISP is functioning well in the first place, and then compare that with the results from an attempted contact with China’s DNS servers in either Shanghai, Beijing 2, Guangzhou, or Hong Kong. You can also use the test servers in Munich (Germany) or Melbourne Australia for the comparison.
Top 3 Methods to Bypass the Great China Firewall
However, if you are in China and would like to access content that is usually censored, consider these methods:
- Use Virtual Private Networks. VPNs are an absolute necessity in the Chinese economy, being that they are used by financial institutions of all kinds to transfer and secure money. If you can find a cost-effective VPN solution, you will be able to interact positively with organizations and companies that use this, and won’t really have to bypass firewall because they are completely legal as of 2012.
- The tried-and-true proxy server solution can be infuriatingly slow, but it works. Not nearly as costly as the paid VPN method, using proxy servers – which can be had through any number of channels, as there are plenty of people who know the ones that work to get you into the Chinese section of cyberspace – works especially well if you have a large number on hand, and first test them using free online tools.
- You can access and browse the greatest variety of content using the most powerful current method of getting onto their servers: Tor. This free routing software not only disguises your identity as you browse the internet; but, more importantly for your attempts to bypass the Cina Firewall, it hides the specific page or set of webpages you are actually trying to download and view. Clearly, this makes it quite the chore for Chinese internet authorities to stop you, since they don’t really know where you’re going; neither do they know where you’re truly coming from.
As these methods to bypass the China Firewall become less effective, more will certainly spring up to take their place - accessing the Chinese online market is too valuable to ignore.
Since we have already discussed the history of the Golden Shield project and how the Great Firewall of China works, it is time to see how the Chinese netizens can get around it. There are a number of ways to get through. Even those without skills can seek help from tech-savvy individuals and still get around the Great Firewall.
The different methods to bypass the Great Wall require different levels of dedication and resources. The Chinese government is always trying new techniques to prevent users from circumventing the shield. Controversially, internet censorship is helping smaller industries to develop. Let’s have a look at what’s currently available at hand.
Proxy Servers - The most common way to get past the blockade is though a proxy. They are relevantly cheap and seem to do the trick. They can be extremely slow and this is part of the reason why people don’t want to use them. Proxies are also insecure. Paid services perform rather well, however free proxies are unreliable and dead slow. Users need to constantly have at least a couple of proxies at hand. It might also be a good idea to test the performance of proxy servers and even monitor them. Here is a good list for your consideration. FoxyProxy offer a brilliant proxy switching tool, supporting regular expressions, used to match URLs where proxies are required. They also offer paid proxies. We were able to test out a couple of them and like with any good paid service, they seem to be working great.
VPN – A bit pricy, but reliable, solution for Chinese residents to browse the net, free of all censorship. Virtual Private Networks are widely used by businesses, who need secure encrypted channels for their intercompany needs. Many organizations use VPN for remote access to shared resources. VPN services are freely advertised in China and anyone can sign up. It is not likely for VPNs to be policed anytime soon. Local banks, retailers, software vendors and a lot more depend on VPN. Shutting it down would bring business back to the Dark Ages.
Tor – Tor is the most widely used traffic anonymizer. It scrambles your traffic, so it is very hard to predict which page the client actually wants to load. Additional encryption is required if you want to feel safer with your privacy. It is rumored that the Chinese government is currently testing ways to obstruct internet browsing through Tor. Many of its privately hosted bridge nodes become inaccessible from China only a couple of hours after being setup. According to speculations, Chinese internet service providers are testing out a new system to find out if hosts are really connecting to the servers they show to be headed for. It is currently affecting nearly 20% of people connecting from China. Tor staff is working to figure out what exactly is going on. At the moment Tor can still be used, but mind that traffic can be intercepted and no encryption is present.
With these anyone can browse forbidden content. Internet censorship in China is evolving at a steady pace. Over the last couple of year, authorities and ISPs have been moving away from the old school ways for preventing people to find and publish content online. We’ve seen a shift in how the government treats internet users and “harmful” websites. The new, refined approach makes it hard for people to actually say if a website is censored or not. Only particular pages might be affected and the number of sites might vary depending geographical location. In the meantime, a lot has been invested to create nuisance for people willing to browse the internet. Certain pages are blocked; some services are so slow that they are actually rendered useless (Gmail is one good example). People choose local alternatives simply because they work better and have the same functionality. This way China is also providing growth for its internally developed services and products. Making tools and websites hard to use and providing adequate alternatives is what most people seem to be OK with.
We would love to hear a good story on the subject. If you like to share your experience, leave a comment below. If your site is blocked from China, or you recently had the misfortune of getting behind the great firewall, let us know. We would also love to publish your story on the blog!
China has a long-running practice of censoring and restricting access to foreign services, and cloud storage is no exception. Google Drive is the last service to hit the Golden Shield. It is hard to believe that Google will find solace in the fact that most of the popular cloud storage services are also restricted in China. 500 million active internet users are off limits while cloud storage is on the rise. There are already quite a lot of great service providers out there. The number of services suggests that there is a rising demand. Cloud storage for the masses is still a new and exciting thing.
How is China coping with the Golden Shield vacuum? Generally they mimic the concept of existing services, build upon them and offer internal solutions to Chinese citizens.
Below are the global options and their Chinese alternatives:
Google Drive & Wangpan
Google Drive gives you 5GB of Google Docs plus whatever you feel like sharing with Google. For a free service it would be OK, but I won’t feel okay with Google being able to use my content if I pay for the storage.
Wangpan is the Chinese word for “your only viable option”. The offering comes straight from Baidu which is China’s Google. All attempts of witticism aside, Wangpan offers 15GB for free. With most options removed by default, it seems like a pretty decent offering. According to online sources, Baidu will is bring Wangpan to Yi (Android derivative). Baidu are up to something. When you search for “wangpan” you’ll get a lot of results from sites such as Forbes and other high quality sites.
Dropbox and Kanbox
Dropbox gives you 2GB of cloud space which get to about 18GB, media streaming, Linux & Blackberry clients included. This service is quite popular, every now and then offering perks to help free users boost their space. And they are also known for the smart marketing to attract new customers.
What China offers is Kanbox. Think of Kanbox as the Chinese Dropbox. The similarities are too many to be ignored. Even the homepage has the same concept. The service offers the same features as its non-Chinese counterpart. Unlike Wangpan, anyone can register. There is no hype around limited number of daily invites as the service is already well established. After receiving 20 million in venture capital in Q4 2011, Kanbox is definitely about to up its game.
Skydrive and 360 Cloud Disk
Skydrive offers 7GB of cloud storage and a not-so-nasty 2GB file size limit. It is rare to see Google have a nastier policy than Microsoft. In this case I would feel better with Skydrive. Also one of the few Windows Phone options.
What China offers is 360 Cloud Disk. 360 Cloud Disk offers the whopping 18GB, extend it to 36GB absolutely free. The only limitation is that your file needs to be below 5GB, which is something we could put up with. This solution can also be considered pretty safe. It has been developed by a company mostly known for its antivirus and security solutions.
Of course, one might say that the Chinese are missing out on some of the other great cloud storage services out there, such as Box, SugarSync, Insync, etc., but three good free cloud storage services are more than what most countries have. Then again China has no decent access to the first set of service providers. The best thing about all services listed here is that Chinese or not these services are free and would aid anyone who is after a decent backup for their personal data. If you are about to travel to China on business and need cloud storage, you should probably try to copy your essential data to one of their counterparts.
Speed and technical availability of the cloud storage services in China seem to be the last thing to worry about. Still, it is good to remember that The Great Firewall monitors all internet activity in mainland China. No matter what service you use, you should check if it is available in China. You can do this with our China firewall test. Note that sometimes the services seem available and you should run multiple tests. Dropbox can be accessed by some platforms and locations, but completely unavailable in others. It has to do with China’s firewall not being that great. No pun intended.
China with its largest population of web users in the world, has one of the most restricted internets, making sure that netizens cannot post nor read about information the government deems threatening.
In the first post we reviewed briefly the history of the Golden Shield Project. A significant part of it is the Great Firewall of China. It’s main aim? To monitor, very literally, all traffic in or out of the country.
As complicated as this sounds, this formidable task is done in a very simple, yet effective way.
The first technique that the authorities use to monitor the activity of their netizens is “mirroring” – a term normally used for normal copying or backup operations. Almost all Internet connections between China and the rest of the world come from a very small number of fiber-optic cables that enter the country from three main points – the Beijing-Qingdao-Tianjin area in the North; Shanghai on the central coast and Guangzhou in the South. On each of these “gateways,” there is a device called “tapper” or “network sniffer” which mirrors every single packet of data going in or out of the country. The mirroring process that occurs at these gateways, however, has a very literal side as well. The gathered information goes through the fiber-optic cables as little pulses of light. These pulses travel through the Chinese gateway routers and at the same time numerous tiny mirrors bounce reflections of them and make sure that the information is delivered to a set of surveillance (“Golden Shield”) computers which “decide” whether the requested content should be blocked. And how did the Chinese develop this mirroring technology? They bought it from a very famous company.
While the mirroring technique is scary enough in itself, it is also worth looking into the other methods employed by the Chinese authorities to discourage the search for potentially dangerous information.
The first problem that a regular visitor may encounter is the DNS block. There is a list of sites whose content is completely off-limits for the randomly browsing Internet user. If you try to access any of these sites, you will simply get “Site not found” message on the screen. Keep in mind that most sites are vigorously scanned for potential banned keywords and the lists are regularly updated. One way to find out whether your site is blocked in China is to use our Website Test behind the Great Firewall of China.
If the DNS is working properly and delivering the correct IP address, the mirroring starts taking place. While you are sending the information request to the correct IP address, the information is mirrored and the IP address is checked in the list of forbidden IPs. If it matches an entry on this list, the gateway sends a “Reset” command to both computers (yours and the one you want to reach). This interception forces the connection to close and you are thus unable to load the site. Instead, you get a “The connection has been reset” message and, if you are very persistent, you can try to load the site again… with the same result.
If you have managed to not stumble upon the first two blocks, there is yet another check which you have to go through in order to get to the resource of your choice. It is the “URL keyword block”. If the IP of the site that you are trying to access is not blacklisted, the domain name is checked for potentially dangerous keywords. Should the requested URL contain forbidden terms, the connection will be reset. The forbidden list contains words in English, Chinese, and other languages, and is often updated.
Another popular technique to prevent the users from accessing this content is a “black-hole loop”. This means that the request gets trapped in a series of delaying commands. When browsers detect enter this kind of loop, they just issue an error message, saying that the request is redirected in a way that cannot be completed.
The last step involves actual content checking, which is done, again, with mirrors. While you are browsing the page, the surveillance system is scanning the content, looking for words, phrases and terms that it does not like. If it finds them – it breaks the connection and you cannot make any further requests to this server. The Great Firewall then blocks the connection between your computer and the site’s server. At first it is only for 2-3 minutes. If you try to access the site during this time, a five-minute time-out follows. On a third try, the time-out might go up to 30 minutes or more. In a word, with each attempt that follows, the time-out increases.
Recently, a new technique seems to be taking place. Lots of administrators of services with encrypted connections report that they are seeing strange activity coming from China. If a user from within China tries to reach the server, a string of pseudo-random data hits the destination computers before the user manages to connect. In some cases, the user’s communication drops mysteriously shortly afterwards. One of the theories is that China’s ISPs may be testing a new system which tries to identify censorship circumvention tools by preceding the user’s connection with a probe designed to reveal something about the type of service that the user is accessing.
Despite all of these setbacks, there are still several ways for you to circumvent the Great Firewall and we will discuss them our next post from the series.
To better visualize how the Great Firewall of China works, watch this short video: