Did the Chinese censors stop worrying about Google?

We continuosly monitor more than 5000 keywords on Google, of which almost 2000 are currently blocked in China. Usually this number changes with current events. For example, when http://www.bloomberg.com was blocked in June, the keyword google: bloomberg was blocked as well. In March, when there were rumors of a coup, google: 政变 was blocked. And as the Bo Xilai scandal unfolded, you could not search for google: Heywood. However, in the whole month of September, we didn't detect one single new keyword being blocked on Google. One keyword was unblocked (google: 亡国).

It's not as if the authorities didn't have anything to censor - the conflict with Japan as well as the upcoming leadership transition provide plenty of material. And indeed, they are censoring - on Sina Weibo and probably other local websites, but apparently not on Google.

Google vs Sina Weibo

Three seemingly sensitive keywords that were blocked on Sina Weibo during September are:

  1. weibo: 克强 (as in 李克强, Li Keqiang, the upcoming premier of China)
  2. weibo: 自焚 (self-immolation)
  3. weibo: 张培莉 (Zhang Peili, wife of Wen Jiabao, the current premier of China)

However, none of these keywords have been blocked on Google:

  1. google: 克强
  2. google: 自焚
  3. google: 张培莉

At the same time, four sensitive keywords that were unblocked on Sina Weibo in September are:

  1. weibo: 薄熙来 (Bo Xilai, the previous mayor of Chongqing and Politburo member who was recently ousted from the Communist Party of China)
  2. weibo: 抗议 (protest)
  3. weibo: 大使馆 (embassy)
  4. weibo: 日领馆 (Japanese Consulate)

Again, on Google, none of the keywords have changed - the first one has stayed blocked, and the other three were never blocked in the first place:

  1. google: 薄熙来
  2. google: 抗议
  3. google: 大使馆
  4. google: 日领馆

Is it because of Googles censorship transparency feature?

In May this year, Google introduced a new feature which warns users that the keyword they are searching for may be censored. It makes the censorship more obvious, and more difficult to confuse with technical errors. The authorities initially tried to block the new censorship warning, but Google quickly improved their approach to make it more difficult to interrupt. Since then, the censors seem to have left Google alone.

Before May, 2012After

Is it because of a falling market share?

Google's share of the online search market in China at the end of 2011 was 16.7% according to MarketWatch. Google.com.hk is ranked 5th and Google.com 10th among the top sites in China, according to Alexa. Perhaps the authorities are deprioritizing Google since only a minority of users ever use it.

Is it because search is harmless compared to microblogs?

Another possible reason is that the authorities simply worry less about access to information (through search) than the creation of information (through microblogs). A recent study by Harvard supports this, claiming that

Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future.

In this context, search seems to pose much less of a threat than microblogs. So what about Baidu, by far the most widely used search engine in China? Let's have a look at the keywords we used for our Google vs Sina Weibo comparison above:

Indeed, there were no changes on Baidu concerning any of these keywords either (though we don't have data prior to September for the third and fourth of them so we can't be sure). Overall though, it does seem to suggest that there's much less movement in terms of censorship on search engines now than on microblogs such as Sina Weibo.

By the way, Picasa Web, Groups and Drive

https://picasaweb.google.com was blocked in September. Notice the S in https:// - the non-encrypted version http://picasaweb.google.com was blocked before as well. Amazingly, https://www.google.com.hk is still not blocked, allowing those Chinese users who know about it to search for any of the thousands of keywords that would otherwise be blocked.

In other good news, both https://groups.google.com and https://drive.google.com were unblocked in September and seem to work rather well in China as this is written.

Google Plus and YouTube next?

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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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