GreatFire June: Bloomberg Blocked As Well As Hundreds Of Additional Keywords On Weibo

The big question for people following online censorship in China is a simple: is censorship increasing or decreasing in China? Many cite the growth of microblogs such as Sina Weibo, as well as the total number of Internet users in China, and argue that while censorship is pervasive, overall, things are opening up. However, two developments during the month of June suggest otherwise. The first was that Bloomberg was blocked, the first time in years that a major, English-language news website was blocked. The second was that out of the 15,000+ keywords on Sina Weibo, Google and Wikipedia that we are monitoring, an additional 231 were blocked while only 24 were unblocked. It would seem that the grip on censorship is tightening.

In a curious incident, Henan News published a story mentioning the Great Firewall by name both in Chinese and English. The story was quickly deleted, but thanks to Google Cache you can still view it here.

Bloomberg Blocked - More To Come?

http://www.bloomberg.com was blocked on June 29. As a major, English-language news website, this means that Bloomberg has been singled out by the Chinese authorities. This followed a lengthy report by Bloomberg on the family wealth of Xi Jinping, the man presumed to replace Hu Jintao as Chairman of the Communist Party later this year. The obvious reason for blocking Bloomberg would be to prevent Chinese netizens from reading the story in the first place. This is not all that effective however, since blocking it only brought more attention to the story, and much of the content of the story could soon be found on other foreign media websites which themselves were not blocked. The authorities could have blocked access to the story without blocking Bloomberg altogether, as they did with a story in The Economist about the Bloomberg story on Xi Jinping. Another interpretation is that the authorities wanted to send a warning to foreign journalists in China: don't go too far, or we'll block you altogether, because bloomberg China http://www.bloomberg.cn/ which is a technical site and contains no reports of Xi Jingping is blocked even though it acquired an ICP license from Chinese authority ,  That would also be supported by the expulsion of a foreign journalist in May, the first such action since 1998. We could likely write a separate post on how foreign news organizations agree to self-censor their content in exchange for market access in China but for the purposes of this story we will assume that the authorities block the content that they want to block.

At almost the same time, the New York Times launched a Chinese edition of it's website, which has so far not been blocked. The fact that most other Chinese versions of foreign media websites are blocked suggest that this is just a question of time. Also, as we reported on July 3, the Weibo accounts of the New York Times were quickly closed on both Sina and Tencent.

Here's an overview of major news websites and which ones are currently blocked. We'll follow their progress with great interest.

English WebsiteChinese WebsiteComments
http://www.bbc.co.ukhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/zhongwen 
http://www.bloomberg.com- 
-http://www.boxun.com 
http://chinadigitaltimes.nethttp://chinadigitaltimes.net/chinese 
http://www.cnn.com- 
http://www.economist.com- 
http://www.ft.comhttp://www.ftchinese.comIndividual articles on the Chinese edition such as this one are blocked.
http://www.guardian.co.uk- 
http://www.huffingtonpost.com- 
http://www.nytimes.comhttp://cn.nytimes.comLaunched in June, 2012. Will it be blocked?
http://www.scmp.com- 
http://www.voanews.comhttp://www.voachinese.com 
http://wsj.comhttp://cn.wsj.com 

Google (Quietly) Continues To Bring Transparency To Censorship

As we reported last month, Google launched a new feature which notifies users trying to search for certain keywords that would otherwise be blocked by the Great Firewall. The new function was quickly disabled by the Chinese authorities by blocking access to the javascript file in which it was defined. Since then, Google has cleverly responded by embedding all the required code and data of what's blocked in the html file. This makes it difficult for the Great Firewall to disable this transparency function without blocking Google altogether. So far, they've done nothing and as this is written the feature is working in China.

If Google wants to, they could take this much further. If a user clicks on a URL known to be blocked, for example, they could inform the user and even offer suggestions of ways around the censorship. We'll keep following the Google vs Great Firewall battle closely.

Unblocked Foreign Websites Keep Getting Faster

As can be seen in the chart below, foreign websites that are not blocked continue the trend of getting faster in China. The data is based on average download speed of Alexa Top 500 websites not hosted in China, per month.

Loading chart..

Keywords Blocked And Unblocked

Below is a list of 231 unique keywords that were blocked in June. Only keywords that we know were not blocked before June are included. Also, there's a list of 24 keywords that were previously blocked, and were unblocked during June. As always, if you think anything is missing, please add it to our database for testing using the search bar on the top of this page. All URLs and keywords in our database are continously tested so that we can detect changes.

Other Notable Changes

Do you remember http://myspace.com? At least the people in charge of the Great Firewall seem to - they blocked it last month. On the other hand, http://www.rapidshare.com was unblocked at least as of June 1. http://www.bitly.com was blocked at least as of June 24 but the shorter domain http://bit.ly which is used for short links is still not blocked.

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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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