What is going on with GMail in China, and how to get around it

What Is Going On?

The URL of GMail is https://mail.google.com/mail. The subdomain mail.google.com points to four separate IP addresses, listed below. According to our latest tests, only one of these is fully working in China. The other three are fully blocked, or blocked depending on where in the country you are or which ISP you use. Interestingly, only HTTPS connections to these IP addresses are blocked. For example, you can visit http://74.125.128.19. Doing so will take you to Google Search; GMail is available on HTTPS only.

IP 地址我们的测试评论
74.125.128.17https://74.125.128.17Not blocked
74.125.128.18https://74.125.128.18Blocked
74.125.128.19https://74.125.128.19Blocked or not depending on location
74.125.128.83https://74.125.128.83Blocked or not depending on location

The Partial Blocking Strategy

Partially blocking GMail may give users the impression that Google is to blame for offering an unstable service. If this strategy works, Chinese users may decide to switch to domestic providers, which operate under local censorship and surveillence conditions. Another explanation for this partial blocking may be that the authorities are nervous of fully blocking GMail. It's one thing to block a social network or a foreign news website (like http://www.nytimes.com which was recently blocked). Losing access to your email is considerably worse - if you switch to a new provider, you lose all your contacts and your past emails. The government may be scared of a backlash from the urban, educated and young people who tend to use GMail, not to mention the businesses that rely on it.

It's hardly a coincidence that this partial blocking is coming only days before the start of the 18th Party Congress. A similar tactic was used in March last year, at the time of the calls for a Jasmine Revolution (as can be seen in our data). These occasions may also provide a good excuse for dealing with what is really much more of a long-term problem - getting rid of Google. Google has a unique position on the Chinese Internet. While it's a minority player, it offers millions of Chinese netizens one of few ways of uncensored web seach (at https://www.google.com.hk) as well as encrypted email communication (through GMail).

What You Can Do

The obvious solution is to use a VPN or some other form of circumvention software. However, many people are reporting problems connecting to their VPNs these days. Luckily, there's another solution. As long as GMail isn't fully blocked, all you need to do is help your computer decide which IP address it should connect to. Regardless of whether you are on a Mac, Windows or Linux computer, this is done by editing the so-called "hosts file". You need to add an entry like this:

74.125.128.17 mail.google.com

HowToGeek has a nice tutorial on how to edit the hosts file.

If it still doesn't work, you can try substituting any of the other three IP addresses in the table above. Whether any one IP works likely depends on your location, your ISP and it may also change quickly over the coming days.

Tell Google To Fix It!

Google can at any time change these IP addresses. Staying ahead of the censors is a game of cat and mouse, so tell the mouse to run faster. Report the issue to Google here.

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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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