Internet Censorship – The Great Firewall of China

With the arrival of the 2008 Olympic Games, it seems that this would be an appropriate time to focus on The Great Firewall of China, or (as it is officially known), The Golden Shield is a censorship and surveillance program run by the Ministry of Public Service. While the Chinese government has been using the Great Firewall to censor and block websites in since 2003, many of us do not have a full understanding of the Golden Shield Project and its intricacies. This article is not meant to start a revolution against the Chinese government to bring down the Great Firewall, but a means to gain a better understanding of something that many Americans and Europeans have little knowledge about – using the GSP.While most Americans and Europeans do have the right to choose what sites they visit and surf the Internet freely (again the keyword is “most”), other countries’ citizens are stifled by government censorship of the Internet. In any site that expresses opposing views or states a negative opinion of the government is banned. Not only will the site be banned, but the authors may face criminal charges and a lengthy prison sentence. While many sites have recently been unblocked by the Chinese government because of the Beijing Olympics, many other sites including, pro-democracy advocates, Taiwanese government and media, and blog sites are still banned. The idea of having or any type of is a concept that many Chinese citizens have little understanding of.The concept of the Great Firewall started in 1998 and began operating in 2003. The need for the GSP stemmed from Communist regimes fearing that the Chinese Democracy Party would develop an extensive and powerful network that couldn’t be controlled. The GSP acts as a firewall (hence the nickname) and blocks content based on IP addresses and a massive database of banned websites. The IPs are banned and prevented from gaining access to blocked content basically by using a proxy server the opposite way we would use it (think: reverse proxy). Any IP address that comes from a Chinese server is instantly denied access.The GSP also combines IP filtering with DNS poisoning to maintain control over the Internet in.Along with IP blocking, URL, DNS, and Packet-filtering, the GSP has a unique characteristic: it doesn’t just ban sites based on these methods, but also bans websites based on the content. A blog would be banned instantly because it shows methods for gaining access to “forbidden sites.” Also, any content that is considered subversive by the government would be subject to banishment, including any pro-democracy, pro-Tibet, and pro-anything else the Chinese government is against.The advanced technology of the GSP also blocks web feeds, specifically ones with rss, feed, and blog in URL address. Even with the sophisticated technology, 28% of sites that should be banned do slip through the cracks, this system of Internet censorship has been working well for. With the number of Internet police reaching 30,000, the permanent lifting of banned websites in does not seem to be a plan for the near future.Now self-censorship is practiced by many Chinese. While sites that should be banned do slip through the cracks, these Chinese citizens end up practicing self-censorship and not visiting these sites anyway. It makes perfect sense: Just because the site hasn’t been banned yet, is it still okay to look at? Why take that chance and end up in prison like many Chinese bloggers do? The thought that you are being watched by the Golden Shield Project, even if the site is allowed on the network, is a mighty force…people tend to act differently when their bosses, or the authorities, are paying attention.Even though China’s Golden Shield Project has recently allowed an unprecedented amount of web traffic to pass through China’s servers, it is only a matter of time before the website bans are back in place and the Chinese government is back to policing the Internet. Before China re-bans the Internet and China’s Internet censorship program takes full effect again, it is important to learn the various methods for bypassing and circumventing the restrictions. Chinese officials lifted their ban on certain websites after journalists were upset that many of the sites they needed to access were unavailable because of the GSP, but once the final medal is awarded and the closing ceremonies end it most likely won’t take much time before China is back to banning as much content as possible, so it is important to know ways to bypass the Great Firewall and maintain Internet privacy.The following methods may seem familiar, as they are used for anonymous surfing, but they do in fact work rather well for circumventing the GSP and gaining access to banned sites.

Anonymous Proxy servers: Anonymous proxy servers based outside of China can be used to access blocked content. The sites are blocked only to Chinese citizens and therefore if you surf using a U.S. – or European-based proxy server then you can gain access to restricted sites. The website will read the IP address and give you permission to view the site. At the same time, the server will hide your IP so that anyone snooping the connection will see a person from Tulsa, OK surfing the Internet. As an added bonus a good proxy server will also encrypt the data being transmitted so that anyone spying can not view the information being sent over the connection.
Foreign companies can apply for a local website hosted in China. While this method does not apply to an individual user attempting to access a banned site, it is a method to bypass the Great Firewall since the company’s content does not have to go through the Great Firewall. The company does have to apply for a local ICP license, which is not guaranteed. The ICP license is basically a permit that allows a Chinese hosted website to operate. Without an ICP license sites face the risk of being blocked by the ISP as per orders from the government.
Using secure tunnels such as a Virtual Private Network (VPN). GSP can’t filter secure traffic that is being communicated and therefore secure tunnels provide a way for users to access content and create sites that would otherwise be banned. A VPN is a method for connecting a computer to a network server without physical wires. Instead the computer and the host are linked via the Internet through a secure tunnel which only allows access by the connected parties.
Onion routing networks, such as Tor, can be used since it requires a network of computers to encrypt and mask your information. This method is, in essence, very similar to an anonymous proxy server, with the only real difference being that users allow their PCs and connections to be used as nodes. A person (in this case a Chinese citizen trying to view a blog) will connect through a network of hosted nodes which will encrypt the data being transmitted and hide the IP address. The major drawback of Tor is that you do not know who set up the anonymous connection you are passing through. You really have no idea who set up the connection and therefore anyone can invade your privacy through this trusted network.
While the temporary lifting of certain banned websites did please the International Olympic Committee, and prevented China from being viewed as a restrictive government regime, the keyword is of course “temporary.” With the minutes of freedom counting down it is important to know that ultimately these methods of bypassing the Great Firewall allow citizens to choose whether or not they want to visit blog sites and other restricted URLs.

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anonymous proxy, anonymous surfing, anonymous web browsing, Internet Privacy

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