Who is protecting the VPNs?

In recent days news has spread that China is cracking down on VPN use (Guardian, Global Voices). Chinese internet users, particularly those in universities, are finding it increasingly difficult to make use of VPNs to circumvent online censorship and access blocked websites. This seems to be a continuation of the increased censorship witnessed this year, including temporary blocks of GMail and LinkedIn.

While important, this development leaves an obvious question unanswered: Why do the authorities not block access to the main websites of the major VPN providers? Each serious provider offers access to a number of servers around the world and blocking actual usage of these is somewhat complicated. The main websites, however, could be blocked in an instant. After all, the Great Firewall has no problem constantly blocking other websites such as Youtube and Facebook.

There are three apparent possibilites. The first is incompetence. The authorities might simply not be aware of the VPN providers that are not blocked. This seems unlikely for two reasons. First, all it takes is a Google search of, say, "VPN China". Blocking the top 10 results would go a long way to making VPN access in China more difficult. Second, some providers, such as StrongVPN, are in fact temporarily blocked from time to time.

The second possibility is that blocking VPN use is not a priority. Paid VPNs may mostly be used by foreigners, and the censorship is more consistent when it comes to free solutions such as Tor and Witopia.

The third possibility is that some faction inside the regime is vetoing ideas of blocking VPN use altogether. This may be the most likely reason that major VPN provider websites remain unblocked, given how easy it would be to block them.

What do you think? We welcome your opinions.

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Wed, Mar 19, 2014

Bing Bests Baidu Censorship

Abstract

Independent research from Xia Chu has shown that, in addition to non-China content, Bing censors a vast amount of content that is hosted inside China and which is not censored by China-based internet companies like Baidu. After communicating our issues with Microsoft, Bing removed certain censorship rules (kudos to Bing), but much work remains to be done.

We recently called for Microsoft to release its transparency report for Bing (as have others - full disclosure, Rebecca sits on our advisory board).  Microsoft has yet to respond to this request. But Xia’s independent research of Bing’s China censorship policy could be regarded as a de facto transparency report for the search engine.

In this thorough study, the results of which we have verified, Xia examined Bing's SERP (search engine results page) for over 30,000 sensitive and nonsensitive query terms, and launched these queries from both inside and outside of China. Comparing and examining these results, plus querying with special search operators, reveals unprecedented detail on Bing's China filtering practices.

The main findings from Xia’s research include:

  • Bing has a list of “forbidden” terms where no results are shown. 139 such terms have been identified.

  • Bing has a blacklist of websites that it never shows to China users. 329 such websites are identified. (5 have been lifted after our communication with Microsoft.)

Thu, Feb 13, 2014

Setting Bing's Broken Record Straight

We can also now trace complicit Bing Chinese censorship back to 2009 as highlighted by Nicholas Kristof. It looks like Microsoft has indeed changed its censorship mechanism after our research made headlines this week. But Bing is still seriously flawed on two fronts: its algorithm favors pro-Chinese government websites by default on all search terms in simplified Chinese and their front end mistakenly delivers explicit censorship of search results on some search terms for users from all over the world.

Wed, Feb 12, 2014

No error here: Microsoft deploying Chinese censorship on global scale

Microsoft says: “The results themselves are and were unaltered outside of China”. This is simply not true.

Tue, Feb 11, 2014

Bing practicing Chinese censorship globally

Our latest research indicates that Microsoft’s search engine Bing is censoring English and Chinese language search on its home page in order to exclude certain results. We have also noticed that Bing is practicing subtle censorship with search results. In both instances, Bing is filtering out links and stories that the Chinese authorities would deem damaging.

Thu, Jan 23, 2014

Massive blocking of foreign media in China

After Tuesday’s report Leaked Records Reveal Offshore Holdings of China’s Elite by ICIJ, China blocked a number of major newspaper websites. All websites below were blocked after publishing copies of the original report. They're all listed as the publishing partners for “Chinaleaks” stories on ICIJ's website. The Great Firewall rarely blocks non-Chinese websites. Many of them have published the Chinese version of the report which probably explains the unusual development.

Newspaper

Main Language

Article

http://www.icij.org

English

Chinese

http://www.theguardian.com

English

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Comments

Here are some reasons:
*All sites that would mention them as a way to get out of the firewall are blocked. So are most of the Google searches.
*They are trying to gain support from the West, and it is not a problem.
*People might be lazy to download it, instead use an online proxy so it is not a threat.
*They may have made a deal with VPN companies to ban all websites that China blocks.
I am baffled too.

They are blocked, they probably read this.

Been using VPNinja for a while now, it's pretty solid and for a decent price. Friends using strongVPN are forever complaining that it's blocked, but I never encounter problems like that

Another possibility is that the major VPNs have been penetrated by Chinese Intelligence who now have access to subscriber names and credit card details, thus linking subscriber details to all their traffic, sniffed and decrypted via Huawei routers installed in the major local Chinese Servers before arriving at the foreign VPN servers. A glorious harvest indeed, email passwords, skype messages, bank account information, postings, commercial secrets, personal profiels all matched to a name, credit card and finally a residence permit number.. Paranoia bites!

I am using Astrill paid VPN. As of last night Open VPN was completely blocked on all servers. I contacted their support and they said that China is cracking down during the leadership convention, and that it will be removed after.

I would bet there is an arrangement between Astrill and the government, since they can give this kind of answer. Furthermore my friends have reported that many of the other VPN solutions have also stopped working. Could it be the ones that refused?

I have also observed that my Vonage VOIP phone has been blocked since last night, and skype calls are severely bandwidth limited. Wonder when it will lighten up.

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