GreatFire May: Google and Sina Adapt, The Great Firewall Strikes Back

After analyzing our May data, which now covers more than 30,000 URLs, we can confidently say that the month of May was uneventful. Few major websites were blocked or unblocked. Perhaps this lack of activity was related to leadership change in China (and not just at the very top - see Rumors say China's chief internet censor replaced. While the Great Firewall didn't change much, Google and Sina, in very different ways, both took important steps in trying to deal with the pervasive censorship.

Google Strikes - The Great Firewall Hits Back

"We have observed that searching for certain keywords on Google from within mainland China will often lead to a temporary service disruption." 
Google Support, May 31, 2012.

Starting on May 31, Google displayed a warning message to users from China if they enter any of the many keywords blocked by the Great Firewall. Users could choose to continue the search which would most likely result in the connection being reset for a minute or so. Or they had the possibility to edit the search query and find another, non-blocked, way of searching for the same thing.

For the 16.7% of Chinese web users that use Google, the immediate effects of this was that the censorship became more transparent. To make it even more transparent, Google could choose to publish the list of blocked keywords. Meanwhile, we've reverse-engineered the full list. You can also browse our own database of keywords blocked on Google. Another effect was that the user experience improved. Since a reset connection means that you can't use the service at all for about a minute, a warning message is much more convenient. Furthermore, the suggestion function that offers autocompletion of common searches worked better. Try typing "tiananm", for example.

However, after a month of relative inactivity, this got the GFW team to strike back. Within a day, they disabled the new Google feature by blocking the javascript file that contains the code altogether. This of course makes us wonder what Google's next move will be. It would be very easy to rename the file or to embed it on the html page making it more difficult to selectively block features.

Going forward, there is much more that Google can do. Rather than just informing users that a search query has been censored, they could offer ways to get around it. The most obvious one would be to redirect users (automatically or manually) to the encrypted version of Google which is still not blocked in China (https://www.google.com.hk).

The fact that this functionality was rolled out, and not just on Google Hong Kong but actually any Google search engine that is accessed from China, shows that Google is actively working on ways to get around censorship in China. For more on this exciting game, read Google Confronts the Great Firewall on Foreign Policy and the announcement on the Google Search Blog.

https://www.googleusercontent.com was blocked in May which is the only major Great Firewall change during the month which involved Google.

How to get your account closed on Sina Weibo

On May 29, Sina Weibo announced a new user-points system to regulate users (original, interpreted by ZDNetAsia). The concept is that each Weibo user will be given 80 points to start with. Any behaviour deemed inappropriate by censors will cause points to be deducted. If the user reaches 0 points, his or her account will be closed.

Just like with the user contract announced last month, the description of what is allowed and not is very general. So what is a user who wants to get their account closed to do? Here are a few tips:

  1. Post a lot of tweets containing these keywords that are all blocked on Sina Weibo.
  2. For more efficiency, check out these keywords that are blocked not only on Weibo but also on Baidu and Google.
  3. Get some inspiration by checking out copies of thousands of Sina Weibo posts that have been deleted.

In other Weibo news, weibo: 天安门 was briefly unblocked on May 21 but has otherwise been fully blocked before and after. weibo: 郭金龙 was unblocked during the second half of May and has stayed that way since.

New Blocked Keywords

China Digital Times discovered many new blocked keywords. Some of them have been unblocked since, and some are blocked not just on Weibo. Here's an updated overview:

BaiduGoogleWeibo
baidu: 巨无霸google: 巨无霸weibo: 巨无霸
baidu: 揭秘google: 揭秘weibo: 揭秘
baidu: 八一广场google: 八一广场weibo: 八一广场
baidu: 色猫google: 色猫weibo: 色猫
baidu: 腌肉google: 腌肉weibo: 腌肉
baidu: 大腿肉google: 大腿肉weibo: 大腿肉
baidu: 剔肉埋骨google: 剔肉埋骨weibo: 剔肉埋骨
baidu: 尸骨google: 尸骨weibo: 尸骨
baidu: 吃受害者google: 吃受害者weibo: 吃受害者
baidu: 吃少年google: 吃少年weibo: 吃少年
baidu: 韩耀google: 韩耀weibo: 韩耀
baidu: 连环失踪案google: 连环失踪案weibo: 连环失踪案
baidu: 雷锋google: 雷锋weibo: 雷锋
baidu: 乌尔google: 乌尔weibo: 乌尔
baidu: 人权google: 人权weibo: 人权
baidu: ren权google: ren权weibo: ren权
baidu: renquangoogle: renquanweibo: renquan
baidu: 晋宁google: 晋宁weibo: 晋宁
baidu: 食人魔google: 食人魔weibo: 食人魔
baidu: 杀人狂google: 杀人狂weibo: 杀人狂
baidu: 吃人google: 吃人weibo: 吃人
baidu: 张永明google: 张永明weibo: 张永明
baidu: 云南失踪google: 云南失踪weibo: 云南失踪
baidu: 肢解尸体google: 肢解尸体weibo: 肢解尸体
baidu: 云南杀google: 云南杀weibo: 云南杀
baidu: 冤案google: 冤案weibo: 冤案
baidu: 猥亵google: 猥亵weibo: 猥亵
baidu: BJ日报google: BJ日报weibo: BJ日报
baidu: 炫富女google: 炫富女weibo: 炫富女
baidu: 马力宏google: 马力宏weibo: 马力宏
baidu: 马驰google: 马驰weibo: 马驰
baidu: 法拉利google: 法拉利weibo: 法拉利
baidu: 新加坡google: 新加坡weibo: 新加坡
baidu: 刘明泽google: 刘明泽weibo: 刘明泽
baidu: 周永google: 周永weibo: 周永
baidu: zy康google: zy康weibo: zy康
baidu: z永Kgoogle: z永Kweibo: z永K
baidu: 朝阳医院google: 朝阳医院weibo: 朝阳医院
baidu: 自行离开google: 自行离开weibo: 自行离开
baidu: 骆家辉google: 骆家辉weibo: 骆家辉
baidu: 医院google: 医院weibo: 医院
baidu: 美大使google: 美大使weibo: 美大使
baidu: 光chenggoogle: 光chengweibo: 光cheng
baidu: guang诚google: guang诚weibo: guang诚
baidu: 政治庇护google: 政治庇护weibo: 政治庇护
baidu: 滕彪google: 滕彪weibo: 滕彪

No Boxer Rebellion on Wikipedia

http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boxer_Rebellion was apparently blocked throughout May but is now available again. en.wikipedia: Huang_Qi was unblocked during May. Chinese users can however access any of the many blocked Wikipedia articles by using the encrypted websites: https://zh.wikipedia.org and https://en.wikipedia.org remain unblocked.

Foreign Websites Continue To Get Faster

Loading chart..

Showing average download speed of Alexa Top 500 websites not hosted in China, per month. Source.   

Loading chart..

Showing Alexa Top 500 websites blocked 50% or more of the time, per month. Source.

Other Detected Changes

http://rapidshare.com was unblocked but is extremely slow. http://archive.org was unblocked and has stayed unblocked. http://www.hulu.com was briefly available on May 13 but has been blocked again since. http://www.weather.gov was unblocked and has stayed that way. 

News on GreatFire.org

May was an exciting month for us on GreatFire.org. We completed the Chinese version of our website, started reaching out on Sina Weibo and Google Plus, introduced a much easier way of looking up and comparing keywords (on Baidu, Google and Sina Weibo) and imported thousands of sensitive keywords from BlockedOnWeibo and China Digital Times. Stay tuned for more. If you want to collaborate with us please email greatfire@greatfire.org.

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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

Latest! New Google blocked keyword function back up, working again. Google changed the URL of the JS file. How long before it's blocked again?

The previous URL was http://www.google.com.hk/xjs/_/js/s/s,st,anim,bbd,c,sb_cn,hv,wta,cr,cdos... and is still blocked (see https://en.greatfire.org/https/bit.ly/KhDUnK).

The new javascript file URL is http://www.google.com.hk/sbox/s/s,st,anim,bbd,c,sb_cn,hv,wta,cr,cdos,sk,... and is not blocked (yet?). See https://en.greatfire.org/www.google.com.hk/sbox/s/s%2Cst%2Canim%2Cbbd%2C... for an updated status.

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