This week, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced proposals for widespread blocking of certain pages on the world-wide-web.
The block would be an ‘always-on’ system, with users having to opt-out if they wish to access adult material on the web.
The plans were met with massive backlash from all sides. Apart from some websites like The Pirate Bay, the general public have no experience of not being allowed to access something on the internet, and the idea of an opt-out block by default does not resonate with the public.
However, one country with experience of widespread web page blocking is China. An estimated 600 million internet users in China are subject to page blocking and surveillance by the ruling Communist Party – informally known as ‘The Great Firewall of China’ or ‘GFW’.
The History of the Great Firewall of China
The Chinese public were first granted internet access in July 1995 – but by August 1996, some pages were being blocked by the GFW.
After unrest in Tibet in 2008, YouTube was blocked – soon followed by the permanent blocking of Facebook and Twitter in July 2009, after riots in Xinjiang.
An estimated 3000 ‘internet police’ help run the GFW and the surveillance programme (all this officially being known as the ‘Golden Shield’ programme).
This programme blocks certain websites deemed ‘harmful’ to the regime and scans all internet traffic, including personal communications, for anything deemed a ‘threat’. Under this programme, many websites (including Facebook and Twitter) will not load, and are blocked.
Can things change?
Interestingly enough, the Chinese territory of Hong Kong does not have internet blocking in place – a stark contrast from mainland China.
So, does that mean no-one in China accesses Facebook or any blocked websites? Not quite.
The first way round the GFW is by using a Virtual Private Network (or VPN).
Usually used for employees of a company wishing to log in to the company’s intranet from home, a VPN can also be used to try and circumvent blocks.
Traffic (instead of going straight onto the web) is first sent to another computer/server (usually in a different country), then onto the wider internet. Return traffic is also routed through the VPN. A secure ‘tunnel’ is also created, meaning communications cannot be spied upon by outsiders. By using a VPN, users can access pages usually blocked by the Chinese Government.
Hotspot Shield is a VPN, and one of the most awesome ways it helps people is in situations like this, where they have a genuinely good reason for needing privacy and protection, but are usually stopped from having so.
The second way to circumvent the GFW is by using a network called Tor.
Tor was originally designed by the US Naval Research Library, but has expanded into an international ‘anonymity network’, the saviour or repressed people, citizen bloggers in certain countries, and all other types.
What Tor does is much like a VPN – apart from connections are routed through many different nodes, before coming out of an ‘exit node’. This makes it incredibly hard to intercept or trace traffic, and is also less obvious than using a VPN.
These two methods are a good way of trying to access blocked parts of the internet in China due to The Great Firewall, whether it be for fun and socialising, or something more serious like citizen journalism or blogging. However, in 2012, one Chinese internet provider started blocking access to VPNs – an interesting development in the story.
However, for many people, these two methods above still work to access blocked sites. Thankfully for internet freedom, the story is not yet finished.