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Does China's Great Firewall upgrade spell a new era for online censorship?


The infamous Great Firewall of China (GFC) famously blocks access to selected websites from outside of the country while also slowing down cross-border internet traffic. But the latest introduction of HTTPS, TLS 1.3, and ESNI blocking has once again ignited the debate around censorship vs. freedom of speech in China, Hong Kong, and overseas.

Many of the security and privacy features that we take for granted prevent the Chinese government and its surveillance tools from monitoring their citizen's online behavior. In a digital world where an increasing number of start-ups run on distributed teams composed of employees working remotely from all around the world, there is a worrying trend of nations rebuilding borders that the internet tore down.

In truth, the myth of a borderless internet was sadly shattered five years ago.

If we dare to look beyond China, many other countries will be taking note and secretly wishing to emulate the GFC. The rise of traffic interception technology is something that can no longer be ignored. 

But how does it work? How can you bypass it? And what does it mean for the future of the web?

What does the new GFC update mean for online censorship?

China is a great example of a nation increasingly becoming more insular and implementing dystopian control over its citizens. By removing the free flow of information, it is thought that local companies can focus on serving domestic users and growing its economy. But make no mistake, the upgrading of its great firewall is all about censorship, restricting freedom and keeping foreigners out.

The arrival of the updated GFC will hit Hong Kong residents the hardest.

Until now, Hongkongers have had the freedom to express themselves online. The controversial security laws and GFC upgrade also punish crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces by a sentence of life in prison. Dissidents, democracy activists, and Hong Kong protesters could also find themselves at a trial that takes place behind closed doors or mainland China.

As nations such as China continue to isolate their virtual world, many analysts also predict we could see a rise in cyber threats worldwide. The recent news that the Chinese-owned video-sharing app TikTok accessed the clipboards of iPhone users in the beta version of iOS 14 left many with more questions than answers. Asking yourself who manages the data an app produces before hitting the download button could quickly become the norm. But we should all have been doing this all along.

How does the new GFC blocking work?

TLS 1.3 (Transport Layer Security) and ESNI (Encrypted Server Name Indication) are the unsung heroes of security. In a world where everything is simplified, and we expect everything to work, we often take the technology that keeps us safe for granted and seldom dare to look under the virtual hood. But the combination of TLS 1.3 and ESNI encrypts the Server Name Indication (SNI) and blocks intermediaries from viewing it. In a nutshell, it ensures that our browsing and communication on the web are secure and private.

diagram showing China great firewall TLS 1.3
Image: Qualys SSL Labs (via SixGen)

When China revealed it would be blocking all web traffic that uses TLS 1.3 and ESNI, it created a digital Information iron curtain. The purpose of the GFC is to block access to foreign information, websites, and internet tools while also dramatically slowing down cross-border internet traffic.

In response, the US is now comparing Chinese apps such as TikTok as trojan horses and discussing building a Western firewall to dominate the world outside of China. Welcome to the splinternet.

Will tools like proxies and VPNs allow Chinese users to bypass the new blocks? 

Accessing the web that we all know and love could quickly become quite cumbersome, depending on where you live in the world. Traditionally, Chinese users have used proxies and VPNs as a virtual ladder to climb over the state firewall and bypass the restrictions to enjoy a free and uncensored version of the internet. But will these tools work against the updated GFW?

As China continues to expand its surveillance mechanisms, it is constantly exploring new ways to block VPN services.

The good news is that a handful of VPN service providers are rising to the challenge by updating their systems to continue working in China. There are many VPN guides to bypass the great firewall that regularly updates the best options to maintain their right to freedom of speech and access information. What is more, you can jump straight to the section where we selected the best VPNs for China.

GreatFire recently introduced an app maker to bypass China's censorship and helps Chinese internet users access censored news stories about government corruption, politics, scandals, and other sensitive issues. It enables users to compile their own app and draw content from state banned content. The app is then branded both with theirs and GreatFire's logo and downloaded as an APK file. The company claims to have helped users more than 13 million times.
Although there are many methods of overcoming the Chinese firewall, many users are also reminded that getting caught could land them in prison. Make no mistake, the stakes are high, and freedom is on the line. If you were in the same situation, would you take that risk?

Will this technology be exported to other repressive countries? 

It's important to remember that online censorship and internet blackouts are much bigger than the GFC. Oppressive regimes in KashmirBelarusIran, and Jordan are further examples of nations that throttle, block, and censor internet activity. With the world watching, many will be looking at how the update to China's online censorship system will affect users based in China and Hong Kong and beyond.

protesters in the street with belarusian flag
Protest in Belarus
Image: AFP/Getty Images

Nationalism and authoritarianism threaten to split the internet as we know it into smaller, regional networks. In China, access to western sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are predictably blocked. Information is distributed through state-owned media, and free expression or anonymity online is just a dream. Although the tech-savvy will be able to find a way to bypass the lockdowns, those without such knowledge will be unable to communicate with the outside world.

Western apps such as Pinterest, Snapchat, Tinder, Netflix, Instagram, and Spotify are also conspicuous by their absence in China. But the censoring of online speech and ISPs handing over information to governments feels sadly out of place in a digital age where technology was designed to unite rather than divide the global community.

The US Secretary of State responded by a desire to remove "Chinese influence" from the US and promote a "clean internet." There is also a long list of authoritarian regimes that will also be looking to implement similar measures in a series of moves that could split the web as we know it. The handling and movement of data across individual countries involve a game where each nation is currently playing by a different set of rules. 

Is internet sovereignty the answer?

Many nations will be looking to use the Chinese model as a future template, which is profoundly concerning. But in this increasingly digital world where online communities are often far more advanced than authorities, there is hope that users will unite and break free from the tyranny of their own governments. Maybe Bill Clinton said it best back in 2000 when he advised that suppressing the internet, is like "trying to nail jello to the wall".

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