Fighting with computers

Computers are not always friendly.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The other Great Wall


Being in China for a few days is an eye-opening experience: both the future and the past are mixed together here in a curious combination. There are many good things beyond the food: A taxi driver may return your missing phone and the waiter will patiently wait for you to order. Other things are not so nice: don't expect queues to be respected nor all cars to stop at pedestrian crossings, even if there is a red light.

Internet experience is also special: Many sites just don't work. Others work like if something was wrong under the hood and finally, the rest work like in the rest of the world. It is not a problem of network speed (though some links could use some extra speed) but of the control the government imposes upon what can or cannot be browsed by citizens and visitors of China.

For some visitors like me, showing some pictures on Facebook for family and friends is a common activity when we are abroad. Not being able to even open Facebook or to make a blog entry (like this one) feels odd. Of course the reason is the so-called Great Firewall of China.

But this did not come as a surprise as I was expecting to have to deal with this problem. The common answer to this problem is to use a VPN connection to a server outside of China and to use that VPN server as the default gateway for all your IP traffic. Performance may degrade but you are free from the limitations of the firewall. However, what was a surprise was that the campus network did not allow VPN connections. Without a VPN my attempts to use this as a way to overcome the firewall limitations were gone.

Given that my original plan was a no-go, I had another back-up plan: to use a ssh connection to forward web traffic to a proxy outside of China. This is the plan that is working nicely now. I guess that other providers in China do not use to block VPN connections though.

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