If any of you haven’t been having problems with your internet connection, your VPN, or your Gmail over the past few weeks, then consider yourselves extremely lucky (and send us your VPN info plz.) Since those pesky flower-related non-protests began happening a month ago, inconveniently coinciding with the legislative sessions, things have been haywire all across the interwebz in China. Is this temporary? God we hope so.
We saw internet control ramped up first with the blocking of LinkedIn, albeit for only a day, and now Gmail is apparently falling victim to some new developments within the Great Firewall (GFW.) Bill Bishop, of Digicha and Sinocism, was quoted in PC World today:
China routinely blocks overseas websites and takes down content it deems politically sensitive. But the problem with Gmail could mark a new tactic to disrupt services without blocking a site completely, said Bill Bishop, an independent analyst who watches China’s Internet market.
“The people behind the Great Firewall have clearly upped their game,” he said.
In Josh Gartner’s most recent China Policy Pod “WTF is up with the Chinese GFW?” (great new China podcast, add it to the RSS) Beijing-based internet expert Richard Parris gives his two cents on the latest GFW developments. Recommended highly if you’re at all curious about these techy goings-on.
So why is Gmail being so fishy lately? Are they simply ramping things up? Or has the GFW made new breakthroughs? Says Parris:
It’s probably not a technical breakthrough, but it may represent the bringing online of another layer of capacity. . . what we are seeing is probably a lot more infrastructure brought to bear.
An infrastructure that Parris says may be one area where China is truly innovative, creating a filtering system that has discernment capabilities beyond simple keyword and address blocks:
One of the odd things we’re seeing at the moment is, for instance, I can go into my Google Aps Documents page and see a list of all my documents. But I click on any given document – that window loads very, very slowly, if at all.
That is a real advance. Because what we’re seeing is not just an address list that’s blocked, or not just servers names and keywords that are blocked, but what appears to be some kind of understanding of the service that is provided by the page. And specifically what we’re seeing that’s really changed is very wide scale blocking of things that may be used as communication tools, as rapid communication tools, of the Facebook/Twitter kind, that have been to various degrees hyped as playing a part in recent events in the Middle East, and other places.
. . .
In a way, they actually have developed some technologies that may well be the envy of various groups around the world. There certainly are some techniques out there that may be patentable, for instance, if they were made public.
The podcast goes on to cover the many facets of censorship in china (seriously, give it a listen) such as how the Chinese are generally unruffled by internet controls, which generally don’t affect Chinese web browsing. Parris also makes the disconcerting observation that continued and repeated internet problems only make it easier for controls to tighten in the future — if you’re used to disruptions, you’re less likely to complain or to question them.
And what about the future of our beloved VPNs? Hard to tell. The struggle comes with increasing technological complexity of network configurations in order to evade the firewall. Many VPNs offer painstaking customer support, but even with clear, dumbed-down help-wikis and constant updates and advice, it can be mind-bogglingly difficult to sort out a good connection.
Update: Google blames Chinese government for slowing Gmail services