Internet access with Chinese characteristics
Everyone knows that parts of the Internet are blocked in China. Facebook and Twitter are M.I.A. and Google redirects mainland users to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. But how much impact does that have on everyday Internet life? If the thrust of the harmonization effort is in fact directed at the obscenities of Chinese modern history and Japanese adult entertainment, perhaps life is actually quite pleasant under the protection of the Golden Shield. My answer will follow the lead of CCTV News by “giving you the facts and letting you decide.”
In fact, the Great Firewall does not greatly restrict my Internet access, because I practically always run my traffic through an encrypted tunnel (a VPN) to Silicon Valley. However, having just relived a month of my Internet history without a VPN, I am now prepared to shed some light on the realities of riding the Chinese Internet beast bareback.
In the course of the month I used around 100 unique blocked sites. That’s around 3 new blocked sites per day, but do bear in mind that there are a number of blocked sites that I use many times per month.
How are sites blocked?
The technical details of the Great Firewall’s various blocking methods are beyond the scope of this article. However, I would like to mention that the various techniques employed lead to a range of experiences for users who attempt to access blocked sites.
The most extreme case is a site that doesn’t load at all. Either the host name can’t be resolved to an address or the connection is reset before anything is loaded. A step down from there are the sites that take a long time before failing to fully load, or that have certain elements that don’t load. Flickr suffers from the latter. It does mostly work, but is regularly missing photos. Then there are sites that do load entirely, but so slowly that they are unusable. The Basecamp project management application falls into this category. Finally, there are some sites that fully function (and fail) intermittently. Google’s Gmail will often work for several days at a time, then fail completely for the next couple of days.
It is interesting to note that public holidays and other days of national significance tend to see stronger blocking. It is unclear whether this is a response to the restlessness of the otherwise working masses, an attempt to test more restrictive systems at times of reduced commercial impact, a combination of those, or something else entirely.
What was blocked?
To demonstrate the incompatibility of my web browsing tastes with those of the brainiacs pulling the levers in the Great Firewall, I've broken down a selection of blocked sites I visited over the month into representative categories.
Google and Twitter
- Google Search USA (Hong Kong usually works)
- Google Groups (discussion platform for many public software projects)
- Google Docs (only encrypted connections are blocked)
- Twitpic (for sharing media on Twitter)
- yfrog (more Twitter media sharing)
Things starting with ‘face’
- Face detection jQuery plugin (free code for finding faces in photos)
- Facelette (a decommissioned experimental app related to Apple FaceTime)
Books and films
Major blogging platforms and the (many, many) blogs they host
Other technology blogs
Tools and resources for software development
- Travis CI integration testing platform
- Instant CSS Documentation Search
- Fabrication object generator
- Coderetreats w/ Corey Haines
- Code Academy
- AreWePlayingYet? (browser compatibility test)
- Boston Ruby Group
- Dropbox file backup and synchronization (an encrypted connection works)
- Linux Mint (a distribution of the Linux operating system)
- Basecamp online project management tool
- OpenStreetMap (like Wikipedia but for maps)
- Wikimapia (open metadata on copyrighted maps and satellite images)
- Deutsche Welle world news
- The Pragmatic Bookshelf (publisher of programming books)
- Khan Academy (an incredible online learning resource)
- Flickr (photo sharing)
- Trnsfr (for sending web pages to your phone)
As you can see, it goes well beyond Google, Twitter and Facebook. In particular, the major blogging platforms make up a large chunk of the English-language Internet. The blocking covers the platform sites themselves, but also the many millions of individual blogs hosted by these services.
I believe that this system of Internet filtration goes beyond the intention of its creators and interferes with a great deal of Internet usage that actually poses no challenge to the power or values of the state.
A quick look at the Great Firewall raises many questions, but my intention here has not been to answer, or even to raise those questions. Instead, I hope to have been successful in just taking a quick look, and making some observations about the system as it currently operates.