Internet access from China

Parts of the Internet are blocked in China. How much impact does that have on everyday Internet life?

I usually access the Internet via a VPN (an encrypted tunnel) that passes my traffic straight out to the rest of the world, bypassing the blocks. I decided to look back over a month of my Internet history without a VPN and see what was missing.

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.

Public holidays and other days of national significance tend to see stronger blocking. Perhaps this is intended to discourage political activity during the holidays, or to test more restrictive systems at times of reduced commercial impact, or a combination of those, or something else entirely.

What was blocked?

To demonstrate the incompatibility of my web browsing habits with 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 blogs they host

Other technology blogs

Tools and resources for software development



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.

Was this indended?

One can imagine political, economic or cultural motivations for much of China’s Internet filtering, but the examples from my Internet usage suggest there is also a lot of unintentional over-blocking.