Oh, Big Brother: How many sites are now blocked in China

Technicians in the lab at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) when China plugged into the Internet.

In the lab at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) when China plugged into the Internet on 20 April 1994. Photographer unknown

By Steven Millward | TechInAsia

ON THE WEB, 26 September 2014

“On 20 April 1994, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Institute of High Energy Physics (IHEP) built the first cable connected to the Internet, realizing email communication with North America and Europe.” [1] The photo shows the scene in the lab. And that’s when China plugged into the internet.

A few years after turning it on, China’s government started working on ways to restrict this new-fangled web. Realizing that this whole new medium of communication entailed a free flow of information, even though few in the country had access to it yet, work began in 1998 on the Golden Shield Project. It was ready by late 2003. Now it’s known and despised as China’s Great Firewall.

This system of web censorship has grown enormously in scope and strength in the past decade. It now blocks many of the most popular websites in the world. The websites of billion-dollar companies like Google and Facebook, with billions of users in the rest of the world, are dark, shuttered rooms in China, filled with spider webs and echoes. Only a few of China’s more clued-up geeks venture inside, using free proxies to access what they’re not supposed to see. Most do so just for fun content – to catch up with the neglected Facebook page they set up before the block, to watch the latest viral video on YouTube. Now that even Gmail is blocked, some are realizing they even need to find a new email service.

All the blocks implemented by the Great Firewall look like a scattergun approach to suppressing free speech, but there’s a method to it. Net Nanny is not as mental as you might think; sometimes there’s a canny logic. For example, Myspace is not blocked, because it’s irrelevant. Many things remain unblocked for now, like Vine and Instagram, mainly because they’ve not been used to spread material that the Firewall would rather shield. That could change any day. Anything could be blocked at any time. DuckDuckGo is the most recent to get the kibosh.

Block party

To find out how extensive the blocks have become, we’ve used the superb resource that is GreatFire.org. We scoured the Alexa top 1,000 sites in the world and went even deeper into the GreatFire database to produce a list that covers all the major sites and services currently blocked in China. [2]

While you’re browsing through all the big-name sites that have been whacked in China, remember that the real issue with all this web censorship is how it’s keeping people in the dark on a range of important yet contentious issues, happening on the kind of sites that are more in-depth and more involved that what a page on Facebook or G+ could ever be. That’s why thousands of small sites relating to Tibet and other politically sensitive topics have been blocked over the years; same goes for anything that amounts to collective action, even if it relates to victims of injustice. It would be impossible to count them all.

That’s been going on since the Great Firewall was first implemented in 2003, and long before authorities decided to augment the blocks by taking down major sites such as Twitter, which happened in 2009.

And don’t forget academic resources, or groups related to free speech. Many of those are blocked too. All the censorship is becoming an increasing burden to educational institutions and businesses alike.

Wait. It gets even worse. Even in the case of overseas sites that are not blocked, a mixture of distance and alleged deliberate “throttling” of foreign websites make them so slow as to be unusable. Before Google got fully blocked, it was throttled for years to make it appear as if Google’s search engine was slow and buggy. Chinese search engines Baidu and Qihoo soared at that time while Google slowly plummeted. Now it’s effectively dead in the country.

Here are the biggest blocks so far:

Social media

Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Google Hangouts, Google Blogspot, WordPress.com, Line, KakaoTalk, TalkBox, selected Tumblr sites, FC2, Soundcloud, Hootsuite, Adultfriendfinder, Ustream, Twitpic

Newspapers and media

New York Times, New York Times Chinese, Bloomberg, Bloomberg Businessweek, BBC Chinese, Chosun Chinese, WSJ, WSJ Chinese, Flipboard (international version only), Google News, YouTube, Vimeo, Dailymotion, LiveLeak, Break, Crackle, selected international Wikipedia pages, selected Chinese Wikipedia pages, Wikileaks

Search engines

Google, DuckDuckGo, Baidu Japan, Baidu Brazil, Yahoo Hong Kong, Yahoo Taiwan

Work and productivity

Microsoft OneDrive, Dropbox, Slideshare, iStockPhoto, Google Drive, Google Docs, Gmail, Google Translate, Google Calendar, Google Groups, Google Keep

Online tools

Flickr, Google Play, Google Picasa, Feedburner, Twitter URL shortener, Google URL shortener, Bit.ly, Archive.org, Pastebin, Change.org, 4Shared, The Pirate Bay, OpenVPN

Redux: gagging Google

Yes, a lot of those are Google services. Let’s recap the Google blocklist in full:

Google search, Gmail, Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Play, Google Translate, Google Calendar, Google Picasa, Google Groups, Google Keep, Google Voice, Google Wallet, YouTube, Google Earth, Google Earth, Google Chrome homepage, Google Code, Google Blogspot, Google Feedburner

  1. Caption quote and photo from CCTV English.
  2. Note that we’re not including pornographic sites, as banning such material is not such a clear cut free speech issue. Porn and photos of nudity are banned in China, and numerous major video sites such as Redtube are blocked. Authorities in China frequently shut down local sites found to be producing and/or distributing sexy material. So let’s forget about porn.

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