Thursday, January 17, 2008

Ways to visit websites blocked in China

At the start of this week, Blogspot blogs were briefly available in China again. It only lasted a few days - the Great Firewall block is back on again now. It's utterly baffling as to why this happens occasionally.

There seem to have been a number of such shortlived liftings of the Blogspot block this year: two or three that I've noticed (I tend to discover it by accident, when a Google search leads me to a Blogspot blog and I find to my surprise that I can open the link in Explorer rather than Firefox!), and perhaps several more that I haven't.

The reason I mostly remain in blissful ignorance of the vacillations of Chinese government policy towards Blogspot is that I have long been using an alternate IP routing on Firefox (download the Firefox browser FREE here) to access Blogspot blogs (a dodge widely disseminated in China blogging circles last Spring by Shanghai student Yee, passing on the tip from his hacker friend Fermi). It can be slightly tricky to get it to work, but it's a godsend (just keep trying - sometimes the code gets scrambled when you cut&paste from Yee's post; and you need to resist the temptation to re-format it to appear as it does on the blog - when you paste it into Notepad, it becomes a continuous single line of text... but that's just fine, don't tamper with it). As well as providing an unguarded backdoor into Blogspot, Yee's/Fermi's directions also give you free access to Wordpress and Livejournal webpages. (And it used to work for Wikipedia as well, but China's censors seem to have found a way of jumping on that - I'm not sure if there may be a new back-up IP address for Wikipedia that we could substitute in the code. I must have a look out there on the Net.)

You can also try the xB Browser (formerly known as Torrify) from XeroBank, a free software add-on for Firefox that enables you to reach any website anonymously. It's very good, but sometimes rather slow - it might be worth paying the small subscription for the 'enhanced version' of the service.

Hotspot Shield is a similar application - again free, but again irritatingly slow. In fact, I'm currently having difficulty getting it to work at all; but it has been recommended by Jeremiah over at The Granite Studio, so it's probably worth persevering with.

Perhaps the quickest and easiest way of viewing websites blocked in China (without downloading anything, or having to tinker with your browser settings) is via Kallahar's Place (Method #2 only - #1 and #3 are no good). Note: There is an irritating glitch with this that you tend to get 'stuck' on the page you're visiting - you have to click 'Refresh' to get back to the original proxy page in order to be able to move on to other websites [Update: This problem now seems to have been rectified.]. However, this site does have the considerable advantage of being the only proxy service I know that gives you access to secure sites - i.e. it enables you to leave comments on blogs.

Another simple proxy (which again enables you to comment) is this Google service for mobile devices (another tip from Yee). Unfortunately it only gives you highly simplified versions of the websites you're visiting - pretty much text only.

And then, of course, there's the old faithful Anonymouse. I use this a lot. I've tried other proxy servers, but they always seem to fall foul of the Great Firewall after a while. Anonymouse seems to be much the most nimble in constantly developing new routings to evade blocking. (Alas, it's not completely immune to Chinese censorship - for example, if you try using it to search for Tiananmen-related articles on Wikipedia, you run into problems....) In China, it can be very slow. And the pop-up ads are annoying. But it's the best service of its kind out there that I've been able to discover.

I've mentioned all of these things before - notably in this fairly thorough discussion of the Net censorship problem in China - but I thought I'd consolidate them into a new post, and add all the links to the sidebar. I'm a public-spirited fellow like that. Of course, if you're in China and you don't already know about this stuff...... it won't be a lot of help to you!

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.

Further Update, 20 / 4 / 08:
Kallahar's continues to be annoyingly glitchy. It seems to have lost the facility (which I'm sure it used to have) to proxify links you followed from your original proxied page; now, you can't even visit other pages from the same website - which is a mighty inconvenience. Moreover, the problem of not being able to return to the original Kallahar's page has got even worse: hitting the 'Refresh' button no longer works; the only thing that does is backtracking to a previous page, deleting your Internet files (not the 'cookies') via the Tools-Internet Options dropdown menu, and then entering the Kallahar's URL again; otherwise, you're stuck on the first proxied page you visit!! In practice, the only way to use it now is to open a separate window for every single page you want to visit. Unfortunate. However, it is still the only convenient web-based proxy service I know that allows you to access the comments form of a blog (at least on Blogspot; and this is only by virtue of the fact that it doesn't proxify links; most anonymizers that do automatically proxify links - like Anonymouse - won't give you access to 'secure' pages with a sign-in feature; Kallhar's gives you a non-proxied link..... and, strangely enough, the Blogspot comments are run on its sister site, Blogger, which is not blocked in China!).

Yee's cunning Firefox workaround - which had served us well for the last year or so - has finally been squelched by the dratted Kafka Boys.

Hotspot and the xB Browser I both find to be unusable - at least with the connection speeds I have to suffer on my Internet link at home.

However, long-term salvation may finally be at hand for me. A number of friends have recommended the FoxyProxy add-on for Firefox, and I've been using it for the past couple of weeks. I had some initial problems with it, so have been hesitant about passing on the recommendation. It can be fiddly to install (it's one of those strange file types that Windows refuses to recognise, so that it appears to be impossible to 'Open' or 'Run' the downloaded file): the trick, I discovered, is to save it to the 'Extensions' sub-folder of your Mozilla Firefox folder - then you get an automatic 'installation' pop-up. Furthermore, I was at first using FoxyProxy only with the built-in 'Default Proxy' option, but China's Net censors have started blocking that. I hope that service might be restored to us before long, but so far it seems not.

You can set FoxyProxy to use the TOR network instead. I had been sceptical about this, because of my problems with the xB Browser (which also uses TOR), but the 'Tor bundle' you can download FREE from TOR's own website (it includes two further software applications called Privoxy and Vidalia, though I'm not at all sure what they're supposed to bring to the party) automatically installs and configures for Firefox - and works much, much better (although it's still very slow if you've got more than a few windows open, and will often 'time out' at busy periods of the day - you just have to be patient and keep hitting 'Retry' when this happens). As I understand it, TOR is a huge and constantly evolving distributed network of relay computers (you have the option to add your own computer as a relay, but I'm reluctant to do that, as I have such connection speed issues already), which means that it's pretty much impervious to censorship.

In addition to TOR and the (currently defunct) 'Default Proxy', you can also configure FoxyProxy to use particular proxy servers for particular websites or types of website (you can define both inclusive and exclusive lists - more info on this here). I might have to start looking into this, as using TOR for everything I view on Firefox ties up a huge amount of processor capacity and bandwidth, and often brings my browsing grinding to a standstill. Despite these difficulties, though, I do thoroughly recommend it: it's easy to use, allows you to view anything, and is damn nigh censor-proof (it's nice, for example, to be able to enjoy unhindered Google Image searches once again - at last, I may be able to post some more llama pictures!).

Final Update:
The creators of the TOR add-on for FoxyProxy decided around the middle of 2009 that it really wasn't all that secure if you used Flash plug-ins with it, and so disabled them in the default settings - thus rendering the service completely bloody useless for Blogger, YouTube, and most of the sites I was interested in (although you can re-enable Flash and other 'risky' plug-ins via the Preferences tab for FoxyProxy, I was finding the service just too damn slow and glitchy to be worth bothering with any more).

Continuing heavy censorship in China in the run-up to the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic in October 2009 meant that most web-based proxies (and even a few VPNs, from time to time), including - finally - Kallahar's Place, were being very effectively squelched - although a few key sites, such as Wikipedia, had been allowed within the Great Firewall.

Although some friends still swear by the free Hotspot service, I could never get it to work for me. I have finally subscribed to the excellent, very fast, very reliable Witopia VPN (only $60 US per year), which is what most people I know in China seem to be using now. I do hope those darned Kafka Boys won't find a way of torpedoing this as well.

Do let me know if you find anything better.


Unknown said...

Check out to access blocked web sites. It is very fast and secure. Works on Youtube also!

Froog said...

Thanks, Stephen - but currently blocked in China!

Just about every web-based proxy I've ever tried (with the exception of Anonymouse) has been blocked in China eventually, usually sooner rather than later.

Anonymous said...

Firefox's add-on called "gladder" is excellent

Froog said...

Thanks, Anon. I'll have to go check that out.

FoxyProxy is proving a bit glitchy. And it's so hard to know which proxies to designate for which websites. Some are unblocked, some work fine via the 'Default' proxy, and some can only be reached via Tor. But it keeps changing all the time!

And, at the moment, with out bandwidth/connection speed problems being what they are, Tor is just a bit TOO SLOW.

Froog said...

I've heard very mixed reports of gladder (the 'G[reat] Ladder to get over the Great Firewall with). It's disseminated by the FLG - which is a dangerous thing to associate yourself with if you're inside China anyway. I've also heard some concerns that it may contain spyware or adware.

I tried it earlier this year, and it just didn't bloody work. I imagine this system (network, whatever it is) was a prime target for the Kafka boys. And during 2009, the censorship got very, very tight. All sorts of proxies that people used to think were reliable - pretty much impregnable - got squished in China.