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[liberationtech] example in the news on this issue of VPN in China from bloomberg
pacificboy at gmail.com
Wed Jan 23 22:56:02 PST 2013
This are just some articles in the news last months in this issue of VPN in
China. Now how these reports get the facts is one issue, one should
investigate deeper on this.
How China Is Sealing Holes in Its Internet Firewall
By Philip Shishkin Dec 31, 2012 7:30 AM CT
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Two things struck me when I first flew into Beijing: lack of sunlight and
lack of Internet.
The sun, on many days, hangs behind a haze of pollution, its light filtered
down to a soupy dusk. The Internet is stuck behind a government firewall,
its main offerings obstructed to those living in China.
That neither the sun nor the Web is fully gone, merely crippled, makes
dealing with their abbreviated selves especially annoying. You know their
full versions are out there somewhere because they tease you most days. The
sun’s orange halo might appear briefly at dawn, only to be engulfed by the
smog. Gmail’s homepage might begin to load tentatively, only to stumble and
In many parts of the world (with some notable exceptions), we have come to
count breathable air and unfettered Internet
basic human conveniences, alongside indoor plumbing and access to
education. That’s why it is so jarring and disorienting to suddenly lose
them in Beijing to man-made forces of breakneck industrialization and
censorship. No amount of reading or hearing about Beijing’s air pollution
and the Great Firewall, as the system of Internet censorship is inevitably
known, is enough to prepare you to deal with them.
For the moment, I’ll leave the sun where I hope it still is, wrapped away
in a blanket of smog so thick I can barely see the high-rises less than a
mile away. It smells faintly as if someone is burning tires.
The Great Firewall is a more complex and nuanced phenomenon, and it appears
to be getting more capable in tripping up undesirable Web
Like many foreigners in China <http://topics.bloomberg.com/china/>, I
signed up for a virtual private network, or VPN, geek-speak for a link to
an overseas server, which allows you to leapfrog the Chinese Internet and
plug straight into the real thing, as if you were sitting in New
or London <http://topics.bloomberg.com/london/>. Twitter, the New York
Times and Gmail loaded seamlessly on my iPad, ending a tense couple of days
of withdrawal symptoms. And then it all crashed.
My VPN provider, a major player in the market, explained in an e-mail that
the disruption was due to a recent update of the Great Firewall, referred
to as the GFW, which “now has the ability to learn, discover and block VPN
The next day, the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper, ran an article
headlined <http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/750158.shtml>, “Foreign-run
VPNs illegal in China: govt.” In it, the man known as the founding father
of the Great Firewall was quoted as saying that foreign VPN providers
needed to register with the government. “I haven’t heard that any foreign
companies have registered,” Fang Binxing, who is now president of Beijing
University of Posts and Telecommunications,
Fang gained notoriety in 2011 when a student threw a shoe at him while he
was delivering a lecture on cybersecurity. The shoe connected with the
target. The student fled the scene and went into hiding, becoming an
instant celebrity among the country’s many opponents of Internet curbs.
Sometime later, hackers broke into the homepage of Binxing’s university and
defaced it with an image from something called Angry Shoes, a spoof on the
wildly popular “Angry Birds” game. The birds at the slingshot are replaced
with shoes, and the pigs in the wooden house are
The most recent VPN disruption seemed intended to target mobile devices,
which are fast becoming an important way to access the Internet. As my VPN
provider promised to find a way to outwit the Great Firewall, several
articles in state-run media reminded readers of the dangers lurking on the
On Dec. 18, for instance, a commentary piece on Xinhua, China’s official
news agency, called<http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2012-12/18/c_124114387.htm>for
new laws to govern the Internet: “If there is no strict legal punishments
on the violators in cyber space, the negative factors will run wild to
destroy the Internet order and even incite online violence, which will
bring great damage to people and society.” This is the Chinese government’s
original rationale for erecting the Great Firewall, an elaborate network of
blocks, network slowdowns and censorship rules that keep many of China’s
half- billion Internet users in the dark about events in the world and in
their own country.
The unease about the broader issue of curbs on free speech was stoked anew
recently when Mo Yan, the Chinese writer who won this year’s Nobel
literature, seemed to liken censorship to airport-security checks: an
China’s Internet is a strange place. Twitter and Facebook are blocked,
their ability to disseminate unwelcome news and serve as organizing
platforms for all sorts of protests deemed too grave a threat. Some of
Google Inc.’s services, including Gmail, are intentionally slowed down to a
snail’s pace, which is arguably even worse than being blocked outright
because it gives customers an impression of poor service.
At the same time, Chinese clones of these American companies operate freely
and load lightning-fast, their searches carefully scrubbed for sensitive
terms by in-house censors. Western Internet companies that choose to enter
the booming Chinese market have to play by the government’s rules.
The most striking example is Skype Inc., owned by Microsoft Corp.
detailed by Greatfire.org, a website tracking all things related to the
Great Firewall (and, of course, blocked by it), when you download Skype
software in China, you are actually getting a product tweaked in a crucial
way. Chinese Skype, a joint venture majority-owned by a local
government to monitor your chats.
Among the many curious things about the Chinese Internet, one apparent
contradiction stands out. Xinhua, the mouthpiece of the government that
insists on blocking Twitter, recently opened a Twitter account, sending out
more than 3,000 tweets, and attracting 8,000 followers -- following no one
itself. Xinhua’s appearance on Twitter, and the one-way nature of its
boosterish account, invited an avalanche of
the Chinese blogosphere.
Western news outlets that touch taboo subjects are blocked, too.
nytimes.com are both blocked because of their recent investigative reports
on the financial dealings of top Chinese leaders.
How effective is the Great Firewall, given the many ways of leaping over
it? China’s Internet sleuths aren’t overly concerned with how foreign
companies and individuals access the Web, or what they read there. They are
concerned about Chinese public opinion, and about ways to influence it by
regulating what the Chinese people are and aren’t allowed to see on the
By that second measure, the firewall achieves its objectives just fine,
despite the availability of VPNs and other technical tricks, many of them
Of China’s 500 million Web users, only about 1 percent “use these tools to
get around censorship, either because most do not know how or because they
lack sufficient interest in -- or awareness of -- what exists on the other
side of the ‘great firewall,’” Rebecca MacKinnon writes in “Consent of the
Networked,” a book on Internet freedom around the world.
Meanwhile, the wizards at my VPN provider finally found a way around the
firewall’s latest crackdown on smartphones and tablets. My iPad is useful
again, until the firewall catches on and a new round of cat-and-mouse
Sadly, there’s no good news to report on breaching the wall of smog
blocking the sun. No one has yet invented a virtual private network to
transport one through the Beijing pollution.
(Philip Shishkin is a fellow at the Asia
the author of “Restless
Revolution, Murder and Intrigue in the Heart of Central Asia,” to be
published in May by Yale University Press. The opinions expressed are his
To contact the writer of this article: Philip Shishkin at
Philip.Shishkin at gmail.com.
To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at
kroberts29 at bloomberg.net.
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