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.

They are:

Google and Twitter

Things starting with ‘face’

Books and films

Video sharing

Major blogging platforms and the (many, many) blogs they host

Other technology blogs

Tools and resources for software development

Software

Miscellaneous

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.

Final thought

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.