Facebook, Google Plus, Uncensored Search etc without a VPN

GreatFire.org's mission is to bring transparency to online censorship in China and to that end we are continuously making our own improvements to how we monitor blocked searches and key words. This past week we launched a new version of our web site where we now provide real-time searches so concerned netizens can keep up to date with information which is being censored via the Great Firewall of China.

We are also fortunate in that we have a core of super users who are constantly and consistently testing our technology to keep abreast of censorship in China. After we launched the new version of the site, we received feedback from a user via Twitter:

Congrats on ur update. But it seems connection reset for https is not detected by ur server. e.g https://en.greatfire.org/https/www.youtube.com

After receiving this message we logged on to Facebook, checked out Google Plus and did some searches on Google, specifically for freedom and 六四. What's so special about that? These websites and searches are blocked in China but we were able to access them without using a VPN or proxy, the tools people commonly use to get around this censorship.

How did we do it?

We launched a new version of the website last week, and among other things it detects types of blocking including the infamous Connection Reset. For some reason, however, it did not report Connection Reset for a test of YouTube on March 17 - nor any other type of censorship. All the data suggested that the encrypted version of YouTube was not blocked in China on that day. Could that be right?

Notice that I said the encrypted version. That means https://www.youtube.com, and not http://www.youtube.com. One single letter makes all the difference when it comes to Internet communication. When browsing a URL that starts with https://, all the traffic between you and the server is encrypted and therefore out of reach of any content-based filtering such as what's practiced by the Great Firewall of China (GFW). It means that the GFW cannot interfere with the connection based on it's content, such as the URL, any data sent in forms, or the response data. It can, however, interfere in other ways:

1. DNS Poisoning

In short, this means that the IP address returned for the requested domain is incorrect. This happened when our system tested YouTube again today (but not yesterday - which is why it seemed to be accessible). More on DNS Poisoning in our FAQ.

2. IP Blocking

This means that the actual IP address of the server where the website is hosted is blocked. All communication with this server is subsequently made impossible. However, this type of filtering is not very effective nowadays, because IP addresses tend to change frequently. Major websites use load-balancing and globally distributed hosting meaning that they have a range of IP addresses at their disposal. For example, if you go to google.com, and then again half an hour later, it may well direct you to different servers. The content looks the same, so you don't notice. You also don't care, because it's technical mumbo jumbo - unless, that is, you live in China or some other authoritarian country with major Internet censorship.

So what's the "So what?"

Let's put together what we have so far:

  1. If the connection is encrypted (ie, the URL starts with https://), the Great Firewall cannot know what the content is and cannot block the request based on it's content.
  2. It can however use other types of censorship, such as DNS Poisoning and IP Blocking.
  3. If we can get around these other types of censorship, we can get around the Great Firewall!

DNS Poisoning is probably the least sophisticated type of Internet censorship tool that the Chinese and other strong-armed governments have at their disposal. To get around this type of censorship, all you need to do is to use an alternative DNS solution. Here's the juicy stuff:

Solution 1: Use IP addresses directly

Instead of using a DNS service, which can be and is manipulated by Chinese ISPs, you can enter the IP address directly. For example, instead of browsing to https://encrypted.google.com (which is blocked) you can browse to https://74.125.235.100 (which is, at the time this is written, not blocked). This is the encrypted version of Google, which means that you can search for anything, including the two examples mentioned at the beginning of this post, or any of the other 200+ searches that are otherwise blocked in China.

Another example is https://199.59.150.7 - at the time this is written, we're able to access Twitter on this URL.

  • Pros
    • You can access any blocked website if it has an encrypted version (a URL that starts with https://) and it's IP is not blocked.
  • Cons
    • You have to know the current IP address of the website (or one of them, there is often a range). IP addresses of major websites change frequently. 
    • You have to enter IP addresses instead of domains every time you want to visit a blocked website.
    • Your browser will compain about the SSL cerficicate being invalid, because you're not accessing the website on it's real URL. You have to manually confirm an exception to access the website.
    • Some websites, such as Facebook, will redirect you to the domain if you try to acccess them directly through their IP.

Solution 2: Manually add IP addresses to your hosts file

What if you could tell your computer to remember that certain domains should resolve to certain IP addresses so that in the future you do not need to remember different IP addresses? Guess what - you can. Every operating system (that I know of) maintains something called a hosts file which is the local cache for DNS entries. Whenever you lookup a domain, such as www.facebook.com, your computer will first check this file and if there's an entry, it will use it. Normally it isn't used for anything, but it can be. All you need to do is to edit your hosts file (here's a tutorial on how to do it) and add entries for the websites you want to unblock. For example, to access Facebook, I added the following:

69.171.224.11 facebook.com www.facebook.com
184.31.178.110  s-static.ak.facebook.com
 
Then save the file, and go to https://www.facebook.com in your browser (remember the https://).
  • Pros
    • You can access any blocked website if it has an encrypted version (a URL that starts with https://) and it's IP is not blocked.
  • Cons
    • You have to know the current IP address of the website (or one of them, there is often a range). IP addresses of major websites change frequently.

(Non) Solution 3: Use a third-party DNS service

What if there was some alternative DNS service that you could use instead of trusting your ISP? Google provides just such a service called Public DNS. Moreover, it's not blocked in China. However, there is a major weakness to this approach. The DNS request to the third-party provider is not encrypted and so it can easily be blocked or tampered with by censors along the way, such as the GFW. We tried accessing some major websites that are blocked using Google's Public DNS and were unable to do so.

Solution 4: Use an encrypted DNS service

This is where it becomes really exciting. There's an application called DNSCrypt which provides a third-party DNS service (OpenDNS) over an encrypted protocol. In essence, this is a keyturn, free solution for getting around major parts of the online censorship in China. All you need to do is to 1) download and install the software (the download site is not blocked, so far) and 2) Make sure to use encrypted versions of blocked websites (eg https://twitter.com instead of http://twitter.com). Unfortunately, DNSCrypt only works with Mac OS so far.

  • Pros
    • You can access any blocked website if it has an encrypted version (a URL that starts with https://) and it's IP is not blocked.
  • Cons
    • It's for Mac only (so far).
    • You have to trust OpenDNS.

What about speed?

When you use a VPN or proxy to access blocked websites, all traffic is rerouted through your third-party servers. One drawback of this is speed. For example, if you are in China, your VPN server is in the US and the website you are browsing is in Singapore, every request you make is routed first to the US, then to Singapore, then back to the US and finally back to China. All this means that it's bound to be slower than if you could access it directly. Using the techniques described in this post, you can do just that: access blocked websites directly from China. It should be faster.

Overview

Let's put it all together to compare, and add in a general VPN solution for reference.

  IP Address Directly Hosts File Google Public DNS DNSCrypt VPN
Access blocked websites Y Y Y Y Y
Free of charge Y Y Y Y N
Direct access to blocked website, avoiding third-party rerouting Y Y Y Y N
Works for unencrypted websites N N N N Y
Works if IP is blocked N N N N Y
Does not require you to know IP addresses N N Y Y Y
Does not require you to enter IP addresses instead of domains N Y Y Y Y
Does not cause invalid SSL Certificates N Y Y Y Y
Access websites that redirect you to their domain N Y Y Y Y
Prevents DNS Poisoning Y Y N Y Y
Available for all operating systems Y Y Y N Y

Other notes

More and more websites are offering encrypted versions, and several are switching to HTTPS by default, including Google as well as our own GreatFire.org. This is changing the game for governments around the world that are trying to censor the Internet.

YouTube offers an encrypted version of its website but unfortunately the actual streaming of videos is not encrypted. This means that by using the techniques described in this post you can access YouTube (and it's fast!) but the actual viewing of videos won't work.

There's a Firefox and Chrome extension called HTTPS Everywhere which automatically redirects you to HTTPS versions of major sites.

What do you think?

  • Are you able to use these techniques to get around online censorship?
  • Do you know of other encrypted DNS services that work on other operating systems?
  • Are there other ways to use these tools?
  • How do you think this will affect future development of the Internet, attempts to censor it, and ways around the censorship?

Comment is free.

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Fri, Mar 18, 2022

Well-intentioned decisions have just made it easier for Putin to control the Russian Internet

This article is in large part inspired by a recent article from Meduza (in Russian).

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russian users have had problems accessing government websites and online banking clients. Browsers began to mark these sites as unsafe and drop the connection. The reason is the revocation of digital security certificates by foreign certificate authorities (either as a direct consequence of sanctions or as an independent, good will move); without them, browsers do not trust sites and “protect” their users from them.

However, these actions, caused - or at least triggered by - a desire to punish Russia for their gruesome actions in Ukraine, will have long-lasting consequences for Russian netizens.

Digital certificates are needed to confirm that the site the user wants to visit is not fraudulent. The certificates contain encryption keys to establish a secure connection between the site and the user. It is very easy to understand whether a page on the Internet is protected by a certificate. One need just look at the address bar of the browser. If the address begins with the https:// prefix, and there is a lock symbol next to the address, the page is protected. By clicking on this lock, you can see the status of the connection, the name of the Certification Authority (CA) that issued the certificate, and its validity period.

There are several dozen commercial and non-commercial organizations in the world that have digital root certificates, but 3/4 of all certificates are issued by only five of the largest companies. Four of them are registered in the USA and one is registered in Belgium.

Mon, Aug 03, 2020

Announcing the Release of GreatFire AppMaker

GreatFire (https://en.greatfire.org/), a China-focused censorship monitoring organization, is proud to announce that we have developed and released a new anti-censorship tool that will enable any blocked media outlet, blogger, human rights group, or civil society organization to evade censors and get their content onto the phones of millions of readers and supporters in China and other countries that censor the Internet.

GreatFire has built an Android mobile app creator, called “GreatFire AppMaker”, that can be used by organizations to unblock their content for users in China and other countries. Organizations can visit a website (https://appmaker.greatfire.org/) which will compile an app that is branded with the organization’s own logo and will feature their own, formerly blocked content. The app will also contain a special, censorship-circumventing web browser so that users can access the uncensored World Wide Web. The apps will use multiple strategies, including machine learning, to evade advanced censorship tactics employed by the Chinese authorities.  This project will work equally well in other countries that have China-like censorship restrictions. For both organizations and end users, the apps will be free, fast, and extremely easy to use.

This project was inspired by China-based GreatFire’s first-hand experience with our own FreeBrowser app (https://freebrowser.org/en) and desire to help small NGOs who may not have the in-house expertise to circumvent Chinese censorship. GreatFire’s anti-censorship tools have worked in China when others do not. FreeBrowser directs Chinese internet users to normally censored stories from the app’s start page (http://manyvoices.news/).

Fri, Jul 24, 2020

Apple, anticompetition, and censorship

On July 20, 2020, GreatFire wrote to all 13 members of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, requesting a thorough examination into Apple’s practice of censorship of its App Store, and an investigation into how the company collaborates with the Chinese authorities to maintain its unique position as one of the few foreign tech companies operating profitably in the Chinese digital market.  

This letter was sent a week before Apple CEO TIm Cook will be called for questioning in front of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. The CEOs of Amazon, Google and Facebook will also be questioned on July 27, as part of the Committee’s ongoing investigation into competition in the digital marketplace.

This hearing offers an opportunity to detail to the Subcommittee how Apple uses its closed operating ecosystem to not only abuse its market position but also to deprive certain users, most notably those in China, of their right to download and use apps related to privacy, secure communication, and censorship circumvention.

We hope that U.S. House representatives agree with our view that Apple should not be allowed to do elsewhere what would be considered as unacceptable in the U.S. Chinese citizens are not second class citizens. Private companies such as Apple compromise themselves and their self-proclaimed values of freedom and privacy when they collaborate with the Chinese government and its censors.

Mon, Jun 10, 2019

Apple Censoring Tibetan Information in China

Apple has a long history of censorship when it comes to information about Tibet. In 2009, it was revealed that several apps related to the Dalai Lama were not available in the China App Store. The developers of these apps were not notified that their apps were removed. When confronted with these instances of censorship, an Apple spokesperson simply said that the company “continues to comply with local laws”.

In December, 2017, at a conference in China, when asked about working with the Chinese authorities to censor the Apple App Store, Tim Cook proclaimed:

"Your choice is: do you participate, or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be. And my own view very strongly is you show up and you participate, you get in the arena because nothing ever changes from the sideline."

In the ten years since Apple was first criticized for working with the Chinese authorities to silence already marginalized voices, what has changed? Apple continues to strictly follow the censorship orders of the Chinese authorities. When does Tim Cook expect that his company will help to bring about positive change in China?

Based on data generated from https://applecensorship.com, Apple has now censored 29 popular Tibetan mobile applications in the China App Store. Tibetan-themed apps dealing with news, religious study, tourism, and even games are being censored by Apple. A full list of the censored apps appear below.

Thu, Jun 06, 2019

Report Shines Spotlight on Apple’s Censorship Practices in China

The newest Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index makes recommendations on what companies and governments need to do in order to improve the protection of internet users’ human rights around the world. Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) works to promote freedom of expression and privacy on the internet by creating global standards and incentives for companies to respect and protect users’ rights.

In their 2019 Accountability Index, RDR looks at the policies of 24 of the world’s most important internet companies in respect to freedom of expression and privacy and highlights the companies that have made improvements and those companies that need to do more. RDR notes that:

Insufficient transparency makes it easier for private parties, governments, and companies themselves to abuse their power over online speech and avoid accountability.

In particular, the report highlights how Apple has abused their power over online speech, and notes instances of this in China. According to the report, Apple has not disclosed data around the content that it removes from its App Store when faced with requests from the government authorities.

While [Apple] disclosed data about government requests to restrict accounts, it disclosed no data about content removal requests, such as requests to remove apps from its App Store. Apple revealed little about policies and practices affecting freedom of expression, scoring below all other U.S. companies in this category.

The report makes intelligent and sensible recommendations for governments. However, the recommendations also highlight how difficult it is to have these discussions with governments like China’s.

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Comments

Good news regarding DNSCrypt - it is also available for Linux, and works well. I used the guide at http://www.ab9il.net/crypto/dnscrypt.html and was getting through the GFW for many more websites than before. Still need a VPN for Facebook, though.

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