Internet outage in China on Jan 21

Yesterday we witnessed one of the largest Internet outages ever in China. We have three theories about why this outage may have occurred - two related to the Falun Gong but our third theory is that the Chinese authorities set out to attack our unblockable mirror websites.

From 15:30 to 16:30 (China time) on January 21, DNS lookup to any domain would incorrectly resolve to 65.49.2.178. Websites inside and outside of China were affected. Even Baidu and Sina were inaccessible. Only software using IP directly (e.g. QQ, VPNs) worked during that time. Attempts to visit any website redirected to http://65.49.2.178, which didn’t respond during that time.  The overwhelming traffic to this IP likely crashed the server.

Timeline

Event

15:15

GFW DNS poisoning begins. First recorded instance.

15:17

Local DNS servers began to cache incorrect responses. Some large websites in China began to be affected e.g Sina Weibo.

 

Incorrect DNS continue to spread through Chinese DNS servers. Major websites including Baidu, Sina affected.

15:39

DNS poisoning lifted by GFW. But local DNS resolvers cached incorrect responses. Users continued to experience outage.

16:00

ISPs around China were manually flushing DNS caches and connections were gradually restored.

We have conclusive evidence that this outage was caused by the Great Firewall (GFW). DNS poisoning is used extensively by the GFW. Some articles that have appeared about this outage suspected that the root DNS server in China was hacked and all domains hijacked to 65.49.2.178. This could explain why DNS servers in China were poisoned. However, during that time, we see that a lookup to 8.8.8.8, a public DNS operated by Google, returned bogus results if the lookup was done from China. In fact, the Google public DNS was not poisoned; the bogus response 65.49.2.178 could only have been returned by GFW.  If the Chinese root DNS server was hacked, a DNS lookup in China via 8.8.8.8 should have returned a correct response. See the below image from Zhihu.

Our testing system is designed to detect these bogus responses by querying non-existent DNS servers outside of China. Any valid response must come via GFW. We indeed observed such behavior during that time on all domains.  

But why did GFW poison all domains and effectively block all website traffic in China?

This action must have been unintentional. 65.49.2.178 is owned by Dynamic Internet Technology according to an IP lookup, and they are behind the famous circumvention tool FreeGate. Currently, http://65.49.2.178 is a mirror site for dongtaiwang.com, a news portal operated by Falun Gong groups.

Blocking 65.49.2.178

One hypothesis is that GFW might have intended to block the IP but accidentally used that IP to poison all domains.

Hackers

Many Chinese media stated that yesterday’s outage may have been due to a hacking attempt. The IP is operated by Dynamic Internet Technology, “mortal enemy number one” of the Chinese government. Some are suggesting Dynamic Internet Technology is behind the outage. However, hacking into a root DNS resolver is not enough to cause this outage, as we explained earlier in this post. They have to hack into GFW. If they are indeed capable of doing that, they can accomplish so much more than messing the entire Chinese internet up. In addition, 65.49.2.178 during that time was not serving any content and with such traffic, it looks more like a DDOS attack agasint 65.49.2.178. They couldn't use that IP to spread sensitive content during that time. However, from today, they have indeed started to use http://65.49.2.178 to distribute mirrors and stopped within a few hours.

Blocking our mirror sites

Our mirror site for FreeWeibo has attracted considerable attention and GFW has tried multiple times to block us. We automatically rotate backend servers and the GFW automatically scans new URLs and DNS poisons them.  DNS poisoning is not commonly used compared to connection reset. GFW seems to only use DNS poisoning as a last resort when connection reset fails to block a site. Our mirror forces GFW to add hundreds of rule-sets to DNS poisoning daily and perhaps because of this we were responsible for the system crashing. This is supported by the fact that our new backend domains are no longer automatically blocked.

We’re also continuously improving our backends to prevent automatic discovery from GFW. Perhaps the script operated by GFW acquired a “null” domain from us and consequently blocked everything.

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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.

Thu, Nov 30, 2017

About those 674 apps that Apple censored in China

Apple opened the door on its censorship practices in China - but just a crack.
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