Google unblocked again - was it a mistake or a test?

The DNS poisoning that was imposed on most Google websites yesterday appears to have been lifted. The blocking was likely reversed some time this morning. Due to the nature of DNS there is a delay before this trickles down to every ISP and every computer so if you still cannot access Google in China it's likely just a question of time. You can also try to flush your DNS cache and it should work again.

Even though the blocking of Google Search may only have lasted for 12 hours or so, it was likely the single one decision by the Great Firewall authorities affecting the most users ever. So what really happened? Here are some theories:

1. Was it a mistake?

The blocking of the worlds number one (and Chinas number two) search engine took place on a Friday night. It's possible that someone simply pressed the wrong button and accidentally DNS poisoned the wrong website. Perhaps they only meant to block mail.google.com. If it was a mistake, that would explain why it was seemingly reversed this morning. In that case, at least one employee of the Golden Shield Project must have lost their job today. However, there's one reason to believe this is not the case. The authorities didn't just block access to google.com or all subdomains that belong to it (such as mail.google.com, play.google.com, maps.google.com etc). They also DNS poisoned google.com.hk and google-analytics.com. This can't be done by accidentally hitting one button - you have to launch three separate actions. So if it wasn't a mistake, what could have happened?

2. Were the authorities testing the public opinion?

We've argued before that the authorites have stayed away from blocking access to GMail only because they are afraid of the reaction if they would cut it off completely. However, they have taken actions to make it slow and unstable. In March, 2011, it seemed like they were going to block GMail but then they backed down. Could it be that this quick decision to reverse the blocking of Google was a similar test of the publics reaction? You can read comments by Sina Weibo users here. Clearly people were unhappy to find their access to Google, GMail etc cut off. Many blamed the ongoing Party Congress. Perhaps the authorities read these reactions and decided that people were too upset?

Interestingly, Sina Weibo did not block searches for Google. Neither have they, as it appears, deleted any messages referring to Google recently. Perhaps this was deliberate, if they wanted to measure the reactions. Perhaps they will now evaluate how strongly people feel about having access to Google, and reach a conclusion of whether to permantently block it in the future.

3. Were the authorities testing the "block Google" button?

Another possibility is that this was a test of a new "block Google" button. The authorities may want to know that, if they so wish, they can easily order the blocking of all Google services in China. If this was indeed such a test, the timing seems convenient (Friday night, when international businesses are closed).

Anyhow, what's the situation now?

Whatever you make of the last 24 hours, it seems we're now back to where we started. That is, Google isn't universally blocked, but many individual Google services are censored, fully or from time to time. In particular, access to GMail is shaky, probably because one or more of it's IP addresses are blocked.

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Tue, Jul 05, 2016

GreatFire.org now testing VPN speed and stability in China

There is a commonly held belief in China that if you have a VPN that works then you should keep quiet about it. In terms of freedom of access to information, the problem with this approach is that access to knowledge suddenly is a secret. Today we are launching a project that we hope will destroy that model.

Our newest website, Circumvention Central (CC), aims to provide real-time information and data about circumvention solutions that work in China. Since 2011, we have been collecting data about blocked websites in China and now we will add data about the effectiveness of VPNs and other circumvention tools.

We are launching CC with four main objectives in mind.

Our first objective is to help to grow the number of Chinese who circumvent censorship restrictions in China. By sharing our information and data about these tools, we hope to show a wider audience which circumvention tools are working.

Our second objective is to improve the circumvention experience for users in China by bringing transparency to tool performance. We will measure these tools on speed (how quickly popular websites are loaded) and on stability (the extent to which popular websites load successfully).

Sat, May 07, 2016

The New York Times vs. The Chinese Authorities

Could the New York Times be setting the best path forward for news organizations in China?

Thu, Feb 18, 2016

From the desk of Lu Wei: Apple, encryption and China

Lu Wei, Director of the Cyberspace Administration of China, offers some friendly help to FBI Director James Comey.

Thu, Sep 24, 2015

Apple blocked CNNIC CA months after MITM attacks

In March of this year, Google found unauthorized digital certificates for several Google domains. The root certificate authority for these domains was the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). CNNIC was controlled by the Chinese government through the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology and is now under the management of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). CNNIC was recognized by all major browsers as a trusted Certificate Authority. If CNNIC signs a fake certificate used in a man-in-the-middle attack, no browser will warn of any unusual activity unless the certificate is pinned.

After Google found these unauthorized certificates, both Google and Firefox revoked its trust in CNNIC a few days later, a development we at GreatFire.org have adovacting for since 2013. Apple and Microsoft on the other hand, did not revoke their trust in CNNIC, nor did they make any announcements regarding the security compromise.

Wed, Sep 23, 2015

Malicious Xcode could spread via download manager Xunlei

What’s at stake?

We reported last week that popular Chinese iOS apps were compromised in an unprecedented malware attack. We discovered that the source of the infection was compromised copies of Xcode hosted on Baidu Pan. Apple has published an article urging developers to download Xcode directly from the Mac App Store, or from the Apple Developer website and validate signatures. We’ve now discovered that even if a developer uses a download link seemingly from Apple, he might still be possible to obtain a compromised copy of Xcode.

Please note that we do not have evidence that such attacks has happened. But it is an easy attack that anyone can implement.

How does it work?

This compromise happened because of Xunlei. Xunlei is the most popular download manager in China. Much of its popularity is due to the fact they can accelerate download speeds by pulling resources from other Xunlei users as well as cached copies on the Xunlei server. All of this, however, is invisible to users. Users can simply enter a regular http download address into Xunlei  download manager and the download will start. Chinese developers were using direct download addresses such as http://adcdownload.apple.com/Developer_Tools/Xcode_7/Xcode_7.dmg to download Xcode.

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Comments

There could of course be another option: your initial report was wrong.

The initial report was, indeed, 100% correct. When i lost all access to Google HK and Gmail last night, I went straight to Google UK and searched for any lastest info. This site was the only one to supply any news, and furthermore, I was amazed at how quickly such a detailed account of the situation had been provided. I have bookemarked this site; it will be extremely useful to me in my future life in China. Thanks, Greatfire Org, for quickly advising us 'just how it is', in a clear and simple way. :)

@Fons Tuinstra, Please notice that even Google ackonwledges this block, refer to its transparency report. https://www.google.com/transparencyreport/traffic/?r=CN&l=EVERYTHING&csd...

Well, Google Docs is STILL blocked in Ningbo, China, as of November 12. Incredibly annoying as I use it as a teaching tool.

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