Will Gmail be permanently blocked in China?

Gmail has been blocked in China from time to time in the recent days. GreatFirewall.biz monitors Gmail access every day. Here are some thoughts on why this is happening.

Why is Gmail access important in China?

Facebook.com, Blogspot.com and Twitter.com are all blocked in China (check out Top Sites). Chinese equivalents Renren, Weibo etc as well as all local email providers are all screened for sensitive keywords. Gmail, together with LinkedIn.com (recently blocked, then unblocked), provide important exceptions to this otherwise compact control of online activity in mainland China. Because connections are encrypted (the address starts with https://) the Great Firewall cannot know what users are writing about. If the authorities don't accept this, they can do two things: 1) Hack individual accounts. They've been accused of doing this on several occasions, eg on Jan, 2010 and March, 2011. 2) Close down the service altogether, an idea which they seem to be playing with now.

How many people use Gmail in China?

Google has a lot of competition in China. Baidu, QQ, Sina and 163.com are all more visited than Google.com (according to Alexa). They probably all have more mail users than Gmail too. I've been unable to find any sources of how many Gmail users there are in China. However, two reasons suggest they are plenty: 1) According to Alexa, Google.com comes in at 7th place of the most visited websites in China. However, most of the search is done on Google.com.hk (typing in google.com in China redirects here by default). This means that a big chunk, perhaps most, of the traffic to google.com in China is done to access Gmail. 2) According to my own little study. I looked at 31 Chinese people in my address book and came up with the following result. This is by no means accurate, but still an indication:

ProviderUsersProportion
Gmail2168%
Hotmail619%
Yahoo13%
163.com13%
Other (Chinese) provider26%
Total31 

If you have any better sources of the number of Gmail users in China, please comment.

Why hasn't Gmail been blocked already?

Facebook, Youtube, Twitter etc are all blocked so why not Gmail? One theory which I've heard many times is that important people use the service themselves. If you believe in the idea of reformist vs conservative factions inside the government, access to Gmail is probably an issue that is debated from time to time. The outages in the last few days suggest that the Gmail defenders might be losing influence.

What will happen if it's blocked?

While Facebook, Youtube, Twitter etc are major websites outside of China, they were never widely used here, and Chinese copycat websites have sprung up to replace them. If Gmail is blocked, shifting to another provider is more difficult - you have to change your email address, and you lose all your old messages and contacts. Will there be some sort of protest if it's blocked? Time will tell.

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Mon, Jan 26, 2015

An Open Letter to Lu Wei and the Cyberspace Administration of China

January 26, 2015

Beijing, China

 

Mr. Lu Wei

Director of the Cyberspace Administration of the People’s Republic of China 中央网络安全和信息化领导小组办公室主任

Director of the State Internet Information Office 国家互联网信息办公室主任

Deputy Director of the Central Propaganda Department of the Chinese Communist Party 中共中央宣传部副部长

Cyberspace Administration of China,

Floor 1, Building 1,

Software Park, Chinese Academy of Sciences,

4 South 4th Street, Zhongguancun,

Beijing, China, 100190

 

Dear Mr. Lu,

On January 22, 2015, the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC), which is under your direct control, wrote a response to a story we published about an MITM attack on Microsoft. In the post, your colleague, Jiang Jun, labelled our accusations as "groundless" and  "unsupported speculation, a pure slanderous act by overseas anti-China forces".

We at GreatFire.org take great offense to these comments and we will refute them in this letter.

Mon, Jan 19, 2015

Outlook grim - Chinese authorities attack Microsoft

On January 17, we received reports that Microsoft’s email system, Outlook (which was merged with Hotmail in 2013), was subjected to a man-in-the-middle (MITM) attack in China.

The following screenshot shows what happens when a Chinese user accesses Outlook via an email client (in this case, Ice-dove):

We have tested Outlook to verify the attack and have produced the same results. IMAP and SMTP for Outlook were under a MITM attack. Do note however that the web interfaces (https://outlook.com and https://login.live.com/ ) were not affected. The attack lasted for about a day and has now ceased.

This form of attack is especially devious because the warning messages users receive from their email clients are much less noticeable than the warning messages delivered to modern browsers (see screenshot at the end of this post for comparison).

(Sample error message from default iPhone mail client)

Fri, Jan 09, 2015

GFW upgrade fail - visitors to blocked sites redirected to porn

In the past, the Chinese authorities’ DNS poisoning system would direct Chinese internet users who were trying to access Facebook, Twitter and other blocked websites (without the use of a circumvention tool) to a set of fake IP addresses that are blocked in China or are non-existent. After waiting for some time, Chinese internet users would receive a timeout message if they were trying to access a blocked site.

However, with the new DNS poisoning system, in addition to those IP addresses used before, the Chinese authorities are using real IP addresses that actually host websites and are accessible in China. For example, https://support.dnspod.cn/Tools/tools/ shows that if a user tries to access Facebook from China, they might instead land on a random web page, e.g. http://178.62.75.99

Below is a screenshot by a Chinese user when he was trying to access our GreatFire.org website which was blocked in China. He was redirected to a goverment site in Korea. In essense, GFW is sending Chinese users to DDOS the Korea government's website.

One Chinese Internet user reported to us that when he tried to access Facebook in China, he was sent to a Russian website, unrelated to Facebook. Another user tweeted that he was redirected to an German adult site when he tried to access a website for a VPN.

某墙你这什么意思,DNS 污染返回给我一个德国工口站的 IP,满屏很黄很暴力弹弹弹(

— nil (@xierch) January 4, 2015

Wed, Dec 31, 2014

CNNIC leadership change coincides with blocking of Gmail

On December 26, 2014, in an announcement posted on their website, a new chairperson for CNNIC was directly appointed by the Cyberspace Administration of China. The announcement of this appointment coincided with the complete blocking of Gmail.

Cyberspace Administration of China (中央网信办) is chaired by Lu Wei, “China’s web doorkeeper”. Lu Wei is also the vice chair of the Central Propaganda Department, according to his official resume.

chair.png

This office is directly responsible for the blocking of Gmail and other websites including Facebook, Twitter and Google.

CNNIC is China’s certification authority and operates the country’s domain name registry. 

What are certificates used for?

Certificates are used primarily to verify the identity of a person or device, authenticate a service, or encrypt files. 

What is a certification authority (CA)?  

Tue, Dec 30, 2014

Gmail completely blocked in China

All Google products in China have been severely disrupted since June of this year and Chinese users have not been able to access Gmail via its web interface since the summer. However, email protocols such as IMAP, SMTP and POP3 had been accessible but are not anymore. These protocols are used in the default email app on iPhone, Microsoft Outlook on PC and many more email clients.

On December 26, GFW started to block large numbers of IP addresses used by Gmail. These IP addresses are used by IMAP/SMTP/POP3. Chinese users now have no way of accessing Gmail behind the GFW. Before, they could still send or receive emails via email clients even though Gmail's web interface was not accessible. 

Google's own traffic chart shows a sharp decline of Chinese traffic to Gmail. 

Below is a ping request to the Gmail SMTP server, which is completely inaccessible in China.

 

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From looking at details of my online English students in China, their e-mail addresses are (out of about 20 contacts):
1. Work e-mail addresses from company domain names
2. 163.com, with a grand total of 2! :D
3. One contact each at: qq.com, sohu.com, foxmail.com, gmail.com, hotmail.com

From speaking in group classes with many more students than I have in my contact list, I know that most of them have QQ accounts for instant messaging. I don't know if they also use those QQ accounts for email.

Thanks for sharing. We'd love to know more about:
1. What proportion of Chinese netizens use Gmail?
2. How many of them suspect or know that the recent Gmail problems are caused by the government?
3. How do they react to their email service being taken down?

Hello,

I currently work in a small city in northern China (south of Beijing). The office is quite large, about 200 + workers. I was speaking with a tech-savy co-worker that is visiting from Guandong. When I asked him how many co-workers are aware that the Chinese government blocks some websites and searches, he answered maybe 1 or 2.

I asked a bunch of them. It turns out he was mostly right. There were a few that knew the government blocked websites like youtube and facebook, but none of them knew to what extent the internet is filtered here. Though they did believe that internet filtering is a good thing. I think it is a bad thing.

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