Great Firewall of China – what is it, how does it work?

During the last weeks several new webpages in China were blocked: the long blacklist was expanded to include Wall Street Journal and Reuters, these are not the only English-language webpages, which cannot be accessed from China.

Great Firewall in China

The most important tool used in internet censorship in China is called “Golden Shield Project” (sometimes known as the Great Firewall of China). Golden Shield is being developed by the Ministry of Public Security since 1998 and become operational since 2003, its main purposes include censorship and invigilation of the Internet. Theoretical fundament, on which the whole project rests, can be summarized by the Chinese proverb: “If you open a window to let in some fresh air, some flies may also enter”. Therefore, the government is aiming to manage the accessible content and keep citizens from sharing critical opinions (especially by the help of popular social networks). The dangerous domain may be blocked for some time or permanently. Sometimes the keyword in URL address is also being blocked, preventing us from accessing the particular webpage. The same rule applies to search engines: sensible content cannot be searched, the ban is either permanent (“Tibet independence”, “Taiwan independence”) or temporary.

The main methods used by the Great Firewall of China include IP address blocking, DNS filtering and redirecting, URL and URL keywords filtering, filtering data packets, disrupting connections. Frequently blocked pages include political pages, foreign informational portals, religion pages, international social media services. The degree of censors’ attention changes, but the content of two types is deleted immediately: pornography and calls for rioting. Among the blocked pages are Facebook, Twitter, Google (with many of its services, Gmail is very unstable), WordPress, Youtube and Dropbox. If we want to know whether the webpage is being blocked, we can use online tool.

Will the Great Firewall ever fall? Certainly, it won’t happen soon. We heard some stories about enabling the limitless and uncensored internet connection in Shanghai Free Trade Zone, but they turned out to be false. It is the rest of the world that starts walking in China’s shoes: more and more elaborated systems of online invigilation are being developed; USA government monitors the web traffic worldwide, EU and Australia are also considering less liberal approach.

But Internet freedom activists are also seizing the opportunities. Recently, they managed to found a way round the Great Firewall – they created mirror sites to enable access to recently blocked Wall Street Journal and Chinese Reuters. Those sites are hosted at Amazon web servers, so any attempt to block them may cause disruptions in the operations of Amazon, which will severely affect many Chinese companies. Many Western websites started using https connection instead of the most common http, under secure protocol of https the web page content cannot be censored selectively: it must be either blocked as a whole or accessible as a whole.

This cyber war rages on and sometimes the one side is winning, sometimes the another. There are some reliable ways for foreigners in China though: If we want to access all of the webpages without problems, we should either install VPN software (some of those are even free, such as Freegate) or purchase personal VPN services, which is more reliable and usually cost less than $10 per month.