April 23, 2014

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Chinese Internet Censorship: See It For Yourself

You probably know already that the Chinese government censors Internet traffic. But you might not have known that you can experience this censorship yourself. Here’s how:

(1) Open up another browser window or tab, so you can browse without losing this page.

(2) In the other window, browse to baidu.com. This is a search engine located in China.

(3) Search for an innocuous term such as “freedom to tinker”. You’ll see a list of search results, sent back by Baidu’s servers in China.

(4) Now return to the main page of baidu.com, and search for “Falun Gong”. [Falun Gong is a dissident religious group that is banned in China.]

(5) At this point your browser will report an error — it might say that the connection was interrupted or that the page could not be loaded. What really happened is that the Great Firewall of China saw your Internet packets, containing the forbidden term “Falun Gong”, and responded by disrupting your connection to Baidu.

(6) Now try to go back to the Baidu home page. You’ll find that this connection is disrupted too. Just a minute ago, you could visit the Baidu page with no trouble, but now you’re blocked. The Great Firewall is now cutting you off from Baidu, because you searched for Falun Gong.

(7) After a few minutes, you’ll be allowed to connect to Baidu again, and you can do more experiments.

(Reportedly, users in China see different behavior. When they search for “Falun Gong” on Baidu, the connection isn’t blocked. Instead, they see “sanitized” search results, containing only pages that criticize Falun Gong.)

If you do try more experiments, feel free to report your results in the comments.

Comments

  1. Patrick Wagstrom says:

    There’s another way that you can do this pretty easily. There’s an extension for Firefox called China Channel that automatically changes your proxy settings to use Chinese proxy servers. The service itself is hosted in Hong Kong and was part of an art exhibition. You can find more information at http://www.chinachannel.hk/.

    I’ve had mixed luck when I’ve tried to demo China Channel. I don’t believe that they got permission from many of the proxy owners and their list hasn’t been updated so it’s at best a mixed bag.

    Another slightly more manual option, that I found worked very well when I demonstrated the issues of Chinese censorship to a class of undergraduates was simply to find a list of public and open proxies. I found just selecting an anonymous proxy from this list allowed to me quickly and easily demonstrate the effects of the Great Firewall of China. It takes a bit more work, but the results are much better.

  2. Annika says:

    Well, I do get an error when I search for “Falun Gong”. But right afterwards, I can access Baidu without problems..

  3. Adrian says:

    After Baidu.com gets interrupted, try searching for “Falun Gong” on google.cn. It returns results, including English Wikipedia pages.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’m guessing when searching “Falun Gong” on Google.cn in China, the results will be different.

    I also get the error page for Falun Gong when searching on Baidu. My question, is why setup the Great Firewall like this? Why wouldn’t it simply spit out the same websites which criticize Falun Gong as it does in China?

    I’d think it would be better to not alert people that the information is censored. This error page and then punishment (not letting you go back to Baidu), just puts the user on notice (so she or he can then get around it, and trust me many Chinese, even non-tech savy ones, know how to get around it, though I’m sure many or most don’t or don’t want to risk it).

  5. Anonymous says:

    Searching “Tibet Independence” I don’t get the error page. Instead, I appear to get only pages criticizing such (I imagine similar to what you described happens with searching “Falun Gong” inside China).

    So the question is, why does the Great Firewall use such a different method with “Falun Gong” and “Tibet Independence” for searching outside China?

    I’m guessing it is because most people in China (mainly Han Chinese) agree with the government on the Tibet issue (and same with Taiwan independence which gets similar results), but perhaps the same isn’t true with Falun Gong. Maybe, they want people to not even know about Falun Gong. This kind of meshes with my own personal experience in listening to a Chinese friend when Tibet, Taiwan or Falun Gong comes up. But I’m not positive and that is only one person.

    • felten says:

      Here’s my hypothesis:

      What we’re seeing is actually two censorship mechanisms operating at the same time. First: Baidu, as required by the Chinese government, is santizing search results for both “Falun Gong” and “Tibet independence”. Second: something in the network, between Baidu and you, is pattern-matching the string “Falun Gong” and interrupting the connection, but is not similarly cutting the connection when it sees “Tibet independence”. This second mechanism applies to those of us outside China, but not to domestic Chinese visiting Chinese sites.

      This would explain why people in China see sanitized results for both searches on Baidu, while those of us outside China see an interrupted connection for “Falun Gong”, and sanitized results for “Tibet independence”.

  6. Cameron says:

    “(Reportedly, users in China see different behavior. When they search for “Falun Gong” on Baidu, the connection isn’t blocked. Instead, they see “sanitized” search results, containing only pages that criticize Falun Gong.)”

    You have to keep the user busy while the police get there.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I tried searching for “tiananmen square tank” and that brought up a long list of results. As Ed wrote, “Falun Gong” did generate network errors.

  8. kamper says:

    I notice that using baidu to search for “freedom to tinker” returns pages that talk about this blog, but no results pointing directly to it. All the major engines of course return the blog as the first link.

    Perhaps their crawler thinks the site is down because it gets cut off whenever it tries to retrieve this page :)

  9. Tess says:

    “tiananmen square protests 1989″ made the error show up

  10. Anonymous says:

    I think the thing you’re missing here is not that the Chinese have a firewall – but that the Chinese people don’t really seem to care.

    Censorship, like unrepresentative democracy, is just a part of the landscape.

    I’m not saying that it would be any different if they did care – and clearly even minor dissidence has been bred out of them (a “protest rally” in China is a strange thing, they’re just so embarrassingly TAME) – just that Americans seem to get more upset about this topic than Chinese do.

  11. Martin Greif says:

    We routinely report on Internet censorship in China. In addition to standard blocking, it appears they also monitor Skype. In our post, China Spies and Censors Skype Users we reference articles on CNET and PC Magazine which broke that story.

    As bad as China is, what scares me more is that Australia is putting in place a similar firewall. While their intentions are reasonable, to block child porn, it’s easy to go from the reasonable to the not so reasonable.

    Once free societies start censoring the Internet, we really have problems. Instead of censorship, find the people who are posting illegal content and prosecute them. Throw away the key after you lock them up.

    Blocking them only leads to blocking other content that people might object to but that is not illegal. It’s a slippery slope once started.

    So while we watch China, let’s not forget that we need to make sure that we look at ourselves too.

  12. rp says:

    Although one would have to think about the routing and packet-inspection capabilities a bit more, the network errors and temporary lockout (if accurate descriptions of what happens) might be aimed in significant part at chinese citizens who try to use outside proxies to get unfiltered data. Can anyone tell what happens (and where) if one tries to use a path that appears to be outgoing from china?

  13. lurenjia says:

    I am a chinese currently outside china. obviously i know the gfw in chinese internet, otherwise i would not browse this page. in common with me, there are many people are aware of the gfw so you don’t have to worry about that. but the thought of chinese people, as well as the situation of china, is much more complex than that you can imagine. there are always various problems in a developing country like china. but this does not stand for that we dont care. those who are concerning about those events would have their ways to explore the world like making using of proxy, vpn, tor, etc.
    however, what i am curious at the moment is why you guys have such plenty of time investigating those of other countries rather than thinking of how to dealing with the those problems of your own.

    • Anonymous says:

      i assure you, lurenjia, americans and other westerners spend plenty of time worrying about their own problems – in the case of the US there is a tendency in the media to worry too much, in fact.

      things like this make people curious, especially people who are experts in the field, like a large portion of the people who visit this site (myself not included).

  14. Anonymous says:

    search baidu.com for “Truthfulness, Benevolence, and Forbearance.”
    the principals of “Falun Gong”. (in english )

    baidu.com returns mulitple links with the ‘key’ word “Falun” .
    hop, skip , jump…think relational
    ….tinker, coder, sailor…

  15. Anonymous says:

    Don’t worry, you will be able to experiment on the great firewalls put up in Western nations soon enough.

    Lurenjia, people study China as an example where the intellect of the many has successfully been subjugated by the power of the few… and yes your problem is our problem, although there is not space in this margin to explain all the linkages.

    • Anonymous says:

      I wouldn’t worry about Western firewalls as they aren’t needed such is the control over the mainstream media. We in the West are free to search away and read as much propaganda as we like. I would suggest that at least part of the reason that China has a firewall in the first place is to stop its citizens from being subjected to the same lies and propaganda that we are subjected to. For example:

      Iran’s nuclear weapons program = non-existant
      Weapons of destruction in Iraq = non existant,
      genocide of 1 million Tibetans = debunked by academics,
      Global warming = ice in the antarctic up by 43%
      Somali pirates = fishermen coast guards victims of toxic dumping and large scale foreign fishing operations

      I could go on and on. You have to research the truth as the media certainly isn’t there to inform you.

  16. Anonymous says:

    When I put the single word “Tibet” into the Baidu engine, one of the responses I got was a page on Youtube with videos on Tibet-related protest marches &c:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twHzXN3kNTs

    Is this an example of the Chinese filtering working differently outside China than it does inside? Does the Chinese government not care about these videos? Or does the filtering not work very reliably? I lean towards suspecting the last possibility, but who knows?

  17. Anon says:

    This strikes me as a painfully obvious thing to bring up, but every time this comes up, it confounds me that it isn’t the first issue: is it really all that relevant whether or not China censors search terms in English? Last I heard in China they speak Mandarin, Cantonese and a smattering of other languages that are not English …

    • Anonymous says:

      You know that written language of different Chinese dialects are similar, so the censorship is always there.

      There’s (a widely accepted hypothesis) key word list by Chinese authority which will result a temporal ban between you and host. The key word filtering is most active on URL, but also active in unencrypted content of html page, for example. The list keeps updating. Of course, there’s a blacklist for anti-government, “inappropriate” websites with their domain and possible IPs.

      Also the Firewall is only active (AFAIK) when Internet access trespass the border of mainland China. Some people disagree and points out that TCP/IP analysis shows both trans-border data flows and trans-provincial data flows are subjected to censorship.

  18. dan says:

    China has been trying to combat independence movements in Tibet and considers Taiwan its territory. Democracy and human rights have also been politically sensitive topics for the communist government. frasi

  19. samuelgilman says:

    I wrote an article with three screncasts about three proxies I have found to work in China if anyone is reading this from the mainland. You can check it out here: http://www.laowise.com/blog/category/3