Blocking a single website across the entire mainland of China, as Beijing’s information minders did early yesterday with the New York Times after it ran an expose of prime minister Wen Jiabao’s family wealth, and as it did over the summer after Bloomberg News ran a similar story, is not as simple as flipping a switch.
The New York Times has been on China’s black list before, but a meeting between journalists and Former President Jiang Zemin led him to order an end to blocking of the site in August 2001. Since then, NYT.com and NYTIMES.com have been blocked, like other foreign media websites, only occasionally. While foreign technology companies operating in China have agreed to operate by China’s censorship rules (Yahoo once revealed the identity of a blogger, landing him in jail, and until it left in 2009, Google censored its results), the Times has sought to push the envelope. It began translating articles into Chinese in 2008, and invited more scrutiny by Beijing when it launched a Chinese-language website earlier this year. That too has been blocked.
The offending article in Chinese
In landing on China’s internet shit list, the Times is joining a distinguished list of websites that do naughty things: Google sites except Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Wordpress and Blogspot, IMDB, Vimeo, archive.org, The Pirate Bay and isohunt.com, Ustream, openvpn.net (a VPN creates a type of “tunnel” through a firewall), and some two thousand others. Like the Great Wall itself, the Great Firewall is far more slapdash and discontinuous and broken than it sounds. But as James Fallows once pointed out, that’s more than enough to control your population’s information diet.
How does it actually work? The filtering can be done at various points of transit, either at the local Internet Service Provider level or at other nodes up to and including the point of transit across the Chinese border. But on my connection in Beijing, the site doesn’t load. You can test which sites are blocked in China from anywhere in the world using tools like https://en.greatfire.org or Herdict, which currently shows that NYT.com is blocked. All direct evidence I’m offering is from a household China Unicom connection in Dongcheng, Beijing.
A block can be achieved by deleting or interfering with a DNS listing. DNS is the directory the network uses to translate a URL into a numerical address of the format that the internet uses. That doesn’t seem to be happening from my connection, but I have a setting that attempts to skip over the local DNS servers and instead retrieves information from Google. So, some may be blocked this way.
A block can be achieved by terminating the connection when a chosen keyword passes through the connection. Wen Jiabao’s name does not seem to be blocked, because his English Wikipedia page is loading just fine (from here). His Chinese name, on the other hand, might be blocked, because I get a “connection reset” error.
The “connection reset” error usually indicates a machine somewhere along the path of the connection has detected an unwanted transmission. Using the protocols that run the internet, this intermediary can then send an error message to both the sending server (say Wikipedia or a newspaper) and to the receiver (my little laptop) saying, “Hey, something’s wrong here! Let’s reset!” The result is that you don’t get your content.
The “connection reset” error is what I’m getting for NYT. This means that somewhere in my transmission chain, it’s most likely that there is a keyword filter being triggered. For practical purposes, this means that even non-related stories on that site are inaccessible. This could be because the newspaper itself is a keyword. It could be triggered by a combination of keywords. It could be because the Chinese leader’s name is part of the code of the English page. Or it could be something else entirely.
China’s internet is not stuck in the 1990s – it has more Internet users than any other country – though it sometimes feels that way.
Ultimately, it makes no sense to say something is “blocked in China." Instead, we can say it is blocked (or better yet “inaccessible”) from a given connection. And without my VPN (indeed, without the one of two VPNs I use that still works), the NYT is at this point blocked on my connection. The Times claims to have actually tested where they were inaccessible and found 31 cities experienced trouble: “By 7 a.m. Friday in China, access to both the English- and Chinese-language Web sites of The Times was blocked from all 31 cities in mainland China tested.” The terms “Wen Jiabao” and “grandpa” (his nickname) and the number 2.7 billion (the assumed assets of the Wen family) are also blocked from searches on Weibo and other Chinese websites.
That doesn’t mean people on China’s Internet aren’t talking about it — as usual with such controversial subjects, clever homophonous codenames are flying around Chinese social media. These too will be blocked, and Chinese netizens will develop new ways to talk past the censors, until they catch on again, and so on.
Below, a guide to how information passes through the Internet when it’s working “normally”:
A version of this article originally appeared at Graham’s blog, Transpacifica.