JISHOU, HUNAN — With the National Holiday fast upon us, China’s net nannies have blocked yet another Internet service, the Tor proxy network, which had been pretty reliable until quite recently.
China typically blocks access to the World Wide Web around important national holidays, such the 60th anniversary of the founding the People’s Republic of China next Thursday. With so many sites blocked already (YouTube, Facebook, Blogspot, to name but a few), I guess the censors decided the surest way to cut off potentially inflammatory websites was to choke the Tor network off.
Of course, there are ways around the newest layer of bricks in the Great Firewall of China.
I noticed something was fishy when I tried to connect to Facebook using Tor. My Tor client couldn’t complete the connection to the network. My little onion stayed yellow, and never went to green.
Tor uses a decentralized network of proxies scattered around the world. The Tor client checks a list of active proxies (computers acting as go-betweens), then logs into the network using one or more of the proxies. An add-on to Firefox then switches Firefox over to use the proxy to access the WWW.
An active Tor connection displays a green onion icon in the Windows taskbar. A pending one shows a yellow onion. The icon refers to Tor’s “onion routing” of connections to make tracing difficult.
Checking the Tor client’s message log, I discovered the client was only finding a few of the thousands of proxies on the network, and stalling in its search for more. A quick survey on Google confirmed my suspicions; China was blocking the Tor proxy network by choking off access to the public Tor proxy directory, for the first time since I’ve been here.
But, Tor designers prepared for such an eventuality. You can add “bridges” — unpublished proxies — manually to the Tor client’s network configuration. Once I discovered how to get the bridges, I was back in business checking out Facebook. (YouTube still remains off limits, because the Firefox add-on’s treatment of Flash. I can get to YouTube, but I can’t view the vids. I’ve been too lazy to try to fix it.)
To get three unpublished bridges, you have to send an email to “bridges [AT] torproject [DOT] org” using a Gmail account. Only Gmail messages are accepted, for security reasons. The subject line should be blank, and the message body should just say, “get bridges” (without the quotes). In less than a minute, the reply gives you three bridge IPs and brief instructions on what to do with them.
There is another Firewall hopper called “Freegate,” which I have not tried yet. Predictably, it is nearly impossible to download from within China right now, even by going to the CNET download site. Another web-based proxy, sneakme.net is likewise being blocked. It was accessible only a couple of weeks ago.
So far, Google, Wikipedia, and all Western news sites are still open without resorting to sneaky IP legerdemain. I am hoping the net nannies don’t get that paranoid.