You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

How to Jump the Great Firewall of China (UPDATED)

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, May 8 2013

The Great Wall of China via Wikipedia

Scroll to the bottom for an update / correction to this article.

As the Chinese government's censorship tools becomes increasingly refined, Internet users have learned to circumvent the Great Firewall. Their primary technique is to communicate via the same networks as government agencies and major businesses.

In the report “Collateral Freedom: A Snapshot of Chinese Internet Users Circumventing Censorship” released last week, researchers documented the experience of more than a thousand Internet users in China. They asked how and why 'netizens “jump over the wall,” the Chinese phrase for circumventing online censorship. The researchers learned what tools users employed and on what devices, the problems they encountered and the reasons behind their efforts. One of the most salient conclusions described in the report is that for the government, the price of preventing citizens from circumventing its online censorship tools was extremely high — in some cases, too high.

In spite of its moniker, the Great Firewall might actually be one of the smaller cogs in a larger system of Internet censorship involving more than a dozen government agencies. The Golden Shield Project is the official name for the internal digital information sharing platform of the Chinese police force. Ostensibly its purpose is to protect Chinese citizens. Rachel Lu, an editor of Tea Leaf Nation, a Princeton-based digital magazine that covers China, explained that as an apparatus of the police, “monitoring, surveillance, data collection and tracking are presumably among its uses. However, it’s not 100 percent clear whether the Golden Shield is also the project that prevents Chinese users from accessing websites outside of China [the firewall]. As the government doesn’t officially acknowledge such blocking exists, it’s hard to know which part of the security apparatus is responsible.”

An Economist article published in the April 6 edition examines the progressively sophisticated censorship machine in China since the Internet became available to Chinese users in 1995. An American engineer who worked on some of China’s early infrastructure for commercial Internet access told the magazine “most of the development of the technical capabilities over the past 15 years has been toward an ability to minimise [sic] the impact of the government’s content-control policies through more precise mechanisms.” To clarify: ‘minimizing the impact’ means minimizing the sense of being censored, not the censorship itself.

But it is also in the government's interest to minimize the impact of censorship on commerce and business. That is how "collateral freedom," the phrase coined by the authors of the report, comes into play, as described in the introduction.

Our survey respondents are relying not on tools that the Great Firewall can’t block, but rather on tools that the Chinese government does not want the Firewall to block. Internet freedom for these users is collateral freedom, built on technologies and platforms that the regime finds economically or politically indispensable.

Blocking the Internet completely tends to be a counter productive tactic that makes the government look bad both at home and in the eyes of the world. Besides the backlash of resentment and suspicion toward the government that is an obvious result, blocking the Internet also hampers commerce. In a country ruled by a single party that has embraced centrally controlled capitalism, this is not a desirable situation.

The government knows that Chinese 'netizens use various tools to circumvent their Internet censorship tools. The government also has the means of blocking those tools, but using them means shutting down commercial businesses and Chinese offices of multinational firms that use them to do business. And so the government has chosen what the report's authors call a "middle course": Sometimes they block the circumvention tools in the name of censorship, and other times they turn a blind eye "in the interest of commerce."

This article has been corrected. In an earlier version, some phrases and wording from the report Collateral Freedom: A Snapshot of Chinese Internet Users Circumventing Censorship were included without proper attribution. This earlier version should have more clearly attributed or rephrased language pertaining to "circumvention tools" and the Chinese government's handling of VPN traffic. The article has been edited to reflect attribution where appropriate, or rephrased. We regret the error.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.