Crossing the GFW and one interesting IdeaWritten by Uln on July 3rd, 2009
This week I had some interesting conversations on other blogs, mostly regarding my state of internet blockdom and the possible actions that a webmaster can take to solve this problem. I will share here some conclusions that might be of interest.
Just to make sure we don’t forget anything, I will go first over the most obvious points:
1- If you are any kind of commercial undertaking, or if you depend on your site for a living, please pay attention to what you publish. Sites in English have quite some leeway to publish political content, but the bigger you get the tighter the line will be, and any kind of political activism can get you down.
2- The worst position is when you are big enough to attract the censors attention, but small enough to be insignificant in the general scheme of the internet. Say the BBC gets blocked: this makes a lot of noise, and eventually the Chinese government feels the pressure to reopen it. Inversely, if you stay small enough, you will never be blocked regardless of what you write. When you are in the middle, like these sites, the risk is biggest.
3- Finally, if you are already blocked, you can try your luck at 9 Dongdajie, Qianmen, Beijing, as a commentator suggested (this is the address of the Beijing Public Security Bureau) or any official body of your choice. I have no experience with this, and I am very skeptical about the results, but it is not impossible that the legal system works once in a while. We have seen stranger things in China.
Getting through the block
Once you have gone through the points above and decided that none applies to you, here are the typical solutions for users to get through the Wall. There are many of them, so I will just list the most well known, such as: lists of free web proxies, ad-supported or fee-based VPNs, networks like Tor or activist software like Freegаte*.
I will not go over each of these because you can find lots of information on the internet already, but I have tried a few of them and they all more or less do the trick: you can open in China sites that have been blocked by the GFW. These solutions are well known to the Chinese netizens users, as you can see in this Chinese blog which has even more options, such as giving a SSH number and code to your users.
So, you might think, what’s the big deal with the Great FWall? It is full of wholes big enough for a whole horde of Mongols, like it’s always been.
You are right, and yet, the GFW is a powerful system. For anyone who had a website blocked, it is very easy to see the impact on the stats of incoming hits from China. Depending on your size and content, it can be down to a 25%, and if you remain blocked for some time, chances are most readers will not find their way back to you. My guess: a combination of laziness, hi-tech aversion, and the excess of info flowing on the net means that a missing site is quickly forgotten, and few go through the trouble of opening a proxy for you.
Another possible solution for the block is the use of RSS feeds, which are not stopped by the GFW. The problem of course, is that for people to subscribe to your feed, normally they need to find your site first, and direct searches or even linking sites that hit a reset connection will not bring them over to you, in most cases.
A block resistant site: the Freedom of Speech Host
So it becomes clear now that, to defeat the block, a site that wants to spread its information effectively cannot rely on the actions of its readers, especially if it wants to increase its reader base. The only solution to achieve this objective would be to design a website that is block resistant.
What does “block resistant” mean? In our sense, block resistant is a website that, in spite of being blocked by the GFW, it can be opened by the final users without any kind of active participation from their side.
The objective of this post is to see whether it would be possible to build a sort of blog-hosting service, similar to Blogger or Wordpress.org, that would have this unblockable characteristic, therefore making it a perfect tool to give support to blocked activists in countries without freedom of speech.
In order to achieve this, a site would have to defeat at least 2 different blocks: the IP block and the URL block.
The IP block works by blocking access not from a single IP, but from whole subnets or groups of subnets. This is what explains that sometimes a website is affected by the content of other sites in the same server. To get over this block, some kind of system would have to be designed to serve the content of the websites through a myriad of different subnets (IPs), ideally from different geographic locations. A suggestion to achieve this is with some kind of network system, using the participation of many volunteers in the world, in a similar way as Tor or the SETI@home experiement.
The URL block: even if you defeat the IP block, the user would still have to type in a URL to get to your site, and this URL would have to be defined and stable, so that the users could actually remember it. The GFW blocks not only IPs, but also URLs, which means that the user’s request for a URL would be blocked at the border and perhaps never make it to the final servers. The solution to this seems complicated, considering our premise that no action (including installing software) is to be taken by the final user. The only way I can think of is to have somehow the URL directed to some sort of DNS server within China that is not physically possible to localize by the authorities. Then this server would convert it into changing IP addresses according to the servers available outside the country.
This is what we have been thinking about the fascinating world of the internet blocks. And I write it here for what it’s worth, in the hopes that more intelligent people (the hackers at chan 888?) find it and see if there is anything to be done about it.
It would certainly serve a useful purpose if such a hosting service as described could be set up. At a small level, it could provide some freedom of speech to oppressed activists. If it can be done at a larger scale, it would lead eventually, through the generalization of its use, to the end of GFW and of similar blocking systems in other countries.
It is not an easy task, and it would probably be expensive, but I am sure if it can be proven feasible there would be many sponsors ready to lend a hand. Somebody go for it.
*NOTE: Some links have been erased to avoid tripping GFW.