Friday, April 06, 2007

Leaping over The Great Firewall

I have taken to calling it Kafka Central (because its motivations, its 'logic' are so impenetrable), but the regime of Internet censorship which we suffer in China is more generally known amongst the expat community here as the Net Nanny, and the collective apparatus of interference with the free flow of information via the Net which it wields against us is mockingly termed The Great Firewall Of China.

Although the decisions about what to block, and when and why, are taken in obscure government departments, the actual implementation - so I understand - has to be carried out by the Internet service providers; and although there are only two major players (are there any minor competitors? I don't know!), China NetCom and China Telecom, their corporate structure is highly regionalized. The elaborate architecture of the Internet, and the myriad different methods of fucking it up (thank you again, Cisco), also make the question of just how The Great Firewall works a rather complicated one: there is often A LOT of local variation in what is blocked, and when, and how effectively. There are probably some good books to be written about this issue; perhaps there already is one - all I could find in a quick search on Amazon was this: You've Got Dissent! Chinese Dissident Use of the Internet and Beijing's Counter-Strategies. I also turned up this article from BusinessWeek from a year or so ago. [Update: This article from The Atlantic at the beginning of March 2008, "The Connection Has Been Re-set", provides quite a detailed explanation of the techniques our Chinese Net censors use to do what they do.]

So, what do we do? Well, many people swear by Tor, a software that allows 'secure browsing'. The free demo version is, alas, CRAWLINGLY slow (pretty much unusably so in China, where connection speeds are mostly pretty poor anyway). I may just have to bite the bullet and subscribe to the 10-bucks-a-month version - as soon as I get myself a credit card again.

Proxy services are a lifesaver..... up to a point. They all seem to be 'non-secure', which means that they can't give you access to any page with a sign-in feature (and thus, you can't comment on a blog). Moreover, they don't support large file transfers for video or music downloads. And Nanny does have some tricks up her sleeve for interfering even with these brave champions of a Free Internet: Proxyline (recently my favoured service, because it was faster than Anonymouse, and free of the annoying, embarrassing pop-ups for porno that pay for the free version of that German-based anonymizer) seems to have been torpedoed for good this last week, and even the extremely nimble and resilient Anonymouse was knocked out of action for a little while. (It may well be that Nanny can completely block a site - even via anonymizers - whenever it chooses to, but doesn't often choose to do so. A Chinese blog I was recently referred to is currently unavailable even via Anonymouse; however, with a China-based blog, of course, it is entirely possible that the authorities managed to get it deleted from its server.) There are articles on Wikipedia (blocked! Use Anonymouse!) about the GFW here and here. And Andrew Lih, an American Chinese academic who is researching a book on Wikipedia, keeps an interesting blog (if mostly too technical for the likes of me!), which often comments on issues of censorship in China.

I mentioned the other day that Chinese blogger Yee has been advertising a 'workaround' which involves modifying the settings of the Firefox browser to access popular blocked sites via alternate IP addresses. This should give you a fast, straightforward connection, and allow you to post comments, download files, and view video clips as normal. In theory..... One blogger I know here in Beijing tells me that he eventually got this to work, but it took him a whole morning of frustration and profanity, and he has no idea what he did differently the final time he tried it. I'm getting nowhere with it. Neither is Yee, come to that. He's chasing up his hacker chum, Fermi, who originally suggested the dodge, for more information. I wait anxiously for news.

There's also an interesting discussion on Bruce Schneier's blog about security issues, from around this time last year (Why does Net censorship always become such a big problem in China around the middle of the year? Go figure. Is there a certain anniversary coming up that gives the CCP leadership the heebie-jeebies? You betcha!). It would seem that you can defeat the GFW by changing your firewall settings to ignore 'reset' messages. Yes, great, guys. HOW?? Can anyone help on this?? I am completely un-techie, I'm afraid (I may be faking it a bit in this post - but I am in essence a complete Luddite: I use computers grudgingly, only because I have to, and have next-to-zero understanding of them; nay, I fear them - almost as much as I fear bicycles, and that's saying a lot!).

Anyway, if you're in China (or somewhere else with such a stupidly repressive regime) and trying to read me (or anything else on Blogspot - I'm not vain; just trying to do a public service here), use Anonymouse: that seems to be the most reliable and resilient of the common proxy services (if you know of a better one, please share the information); it also has the advantage over some of its rivals of automatically anonymizing any links that you follow. If you want to read the Comments on a Blogspot blog, just click on the post title - that takes you to a page showing only that post, complete with the comments (I don't know why, but it does - very useful in these trying times). Clicking on the 'comments' button, alas, won't work if you're using an anonymizer.

If you want to leave me a comment..... well, you can't, for now - unless you can get Yee's/Fermi's Firefox dodge to work for you. You could, however, (since you probably know me) send me a comment by e-mail...... and I'll post it for you one day (this is how my comment-junkie Tulsa is now getting her daily fix). If you want me to reply to a comment of yours (which you have managed to leave because you are lucky enough to live in an uncensored country) - please BE PATIENT. At the moment, I am locked out of the 'Leave a comment' facility on my two blogs as well. I will find a way around it eventually. Or maybe Kafka Central will just lighten up a bit. In a couple of months, perhaps.

Update 17/01/08:
I've just written a new post summarizing the various methods of beating the Great Firewall blocks, and added links to them in the blog sidebar. Yee's Firefox workaround can be fiddly to get working, but is worth persisting with; it has long been my favoured method of viewing Blogspot blogs (though unfortunately it has stopped working for Wikipedia). The Tor software I mentioned is rather better these days (though the free version is still a bit slow at times), but now renamed XeroBank xB Browser. I've also been recommended to try a similar application called Hotspot Shield. However, for a quick fix to the censorship problem (no downloads!) you should try "Method #2" on the Kallahar's Place proxy page. Fuller details of all this in the new post - check it out.

1 comment:

Froog said...

I did eventually get the Yee/Fermi trick for Firefox to work, and it has been a lifesaver.

I've passed it on to all my friends here in China, and quite a few strangers too.