GreatFire Newsletter - April, 2012

April was an eventful month in China. Here's a summary of the most important Internet censorship news that we detected.

No major changes after Internet outage on April 12

There was an extraordinary Internet outage in China on April 12. Many reported that all foreign websites were unaccessible for about two hours. Our data confirms that several websites that are otherwise not blocked were not accessible, but interestingly other foreign websites were still available. For more info on what happened, check out our answer on Quora. Some people suggested that the authorities were trying out a new version of the Great Firewall, which would be more restrictive than before. Our data does not support this claim. As you can see in the first graph below, there has not been any major change in the number of major websites that are blocked in China. Furthermore, the second graph shows that foreign websites were actually faster to access in April than during previous months.

Loading chart..

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

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

Google Drive and the ongoing Google vs CCP battle

Google Drive was launched on April 24. Within three days, it was blocked in China. This is similar to Google Plus which was launched on June 28 last year, and confirmed to be blocked since July 4. It is likely that the Great Firewall has a special team dedicated to monitoring and blocking new Google services. They are probably keen not to repeat the mistake of Google Mail which was left unblocked and, meanwhile, switched over to encrypted communications only (meaning that email content can't be intercepted). The authorites would probably like to block it. The only reason we can see that they don't is that they're afraid of the reactions because so many (especially educated, big-city people) are already using it.

Curiously, was blocked on March 29 (and has been blocked before) but is not blocked. The latter redirects users in China to (note the HTTP, as in not encrypted). Much more importantly, the encrypted Hong Kong version of Google at remains unblocked. While not on by default, it does allow Chinese users to search for any of the hundreds of keywords that are otherwise blocked. was blocked on March 29 and has stayed that way, though the unencrypted version remains accessible ( The same thing happened to the encrypted version of Google Maps ( - the unencrypted version also remains (

Several previously unblocked keywords were blocked on Google Search. These include google: 九长老 - a reference to the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, google: 政变 - meaning coup d'état, google: 共匪 - meaning communist bandit, and google: 滤霸, 驴爸 which was unblocked again on April 27.

YouTube fully blocked again

The encrypted version of YouTube - - was accessible in China for several days in March. Since March 29, though, it has been fully blocked again, suggesting that the Great Firewall is now better at blocking encrypted websites. HTTPS makes online censorship more difficult in that intercepting network devices don't know what the web traffic is. So while a web request to can be blocked simply by detecting that the user is trying to access a blacklisted URL, a request to can only be hindered by either blocking the IP address of the server or by DNS poisoning the domain lookup. The former is difficult because IP addresses tend to change over time, and the latter is imperfect because it's decentralized and easier to get around than other forms of censorship. For example, the encrypted YouTube URL was tested eight times during April. Five different IP addresses were returned on the different test occasions. Only on three of the occasions was a completely different IP address returned (suggesting DNS Poisoning). On all eight test ocassions though, the website was blocked. This suggests that the Great Firewall is now either blocking ranges of IP addresses, or continuously monitoring changes in IP addresses and blocking them accordingly.

Blocked and unblocked on Sina Weibo

weibo: 王立军, the former Chongqing police chief who triggered the biggest political scandal in China in many years, was blocked on or before April 10 (but was not blocked on April 3). As part of the same scandal, weibo: heywood was blocked on or before April 14. weibo: 薄熙来 himself was blocked on or before April 10.

Other keywords were unblocked. weibo: 蔡赴朝, the name of a CCP politican, was unblocked on or before April 21. weibo: 女同 - lesbian - was unblocked on or before April 7.

You can lookup and test any keyword for censorship on Sina Weibo here. Also much recommended are BlockedOnWeibo, a blog which publishes frequent news on keywords blocked on Weibo, and WeiboScope, a database of deleted Weibo posts.

Other major Weibo news of April is that Sina is still avoiding fully implementing real-name registration requirements and that Sina as well as Tencent Weibo turned off commenting for three days starting on March 31.

Other notable changes

The English en.wikipedia: Huang_Qi entry (a currently imprisoned human-rights activist) was blocked all of April, and then unblocked again in early May. was inaccessible on a couple of occasions in April and is consistently very slow in China. was unblocked in March and stayed unblocked throughout April. was blocked on March 26 and has stayed blocked since. was blocked on April 4 and has stayed blocked since. - A Chinese-language wiki - was blocked on April 9 and has stayed blocked since. - a gaming website - was unblocked at the end of March and has stayed accessible since. - a campaign website - was partially blocked already in March and fully blocked throughout April. - a blog covering news in China - was blocked at the end of March and has stayed blocked since.

GreatFire announces

There are many ways to get around the Great Firewall of China: VPNs, proxies, Tor etc. Some of them cost money and some are free. They are all bound to be unreliable though because they depend on a server used to tunnel the web traffic in order to circumvent the censorship. If the IP address of the server being used is blocked, the service ceases to work. It can be fixed of course, by changing to another server, but meanwhile you may find yourself without any means of accessing blocked websites. Until now. is a circumvention tool that is very difficult to block. This is because it relies on email and not HTTP traffic. All you need to do is to send an email to and enter the URL of the website that you want to view as the email subject. Within a few seconds (sometimes longer) you will receive a PDF version of the website.

For example, create a new email with the subject and send it off to You will receive an updated PDF copy of that website - blocked in China - shortly thereafter.

It's not a perfect solution by any means. You can't log in to websites, such as Facebook, and you can't view videos. However, for those times when you simply want to view a blocked website and you have no other means, it's very convenient. All you need to remember is

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Thu, Aug 10, 2023

1.4 million people used FreeBrowser to circumvent the Great Firewall of Turkmenistan

Since 2021, the authorities in Turkmenistan have taken exceptional measures to crack down on the use of circumvention tools. Citizens have been forced to swear on the Koran that they will not use a VPN. Circumvention tool websites have been systematically blocked. Arbitrary searches of mobile devices have also taken place and have even targeted school children and teachers.

The government has also blocked servers hosting VPNs which led to “near complete” internet shutdowns on several occasions in 2022. Current reports indicate that 66 hosting providers, 19 social networks and messaging platforms, and 10 leading content delivery networks (CDNs), are blocked in the country. The government presumably is unconcerned about the negative economic impact that such shutdowns can cause.

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 (, 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 ( 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 ( 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 (

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, 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.

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