Accessing the Internet in China has been an experience.
Knowing that all Internet traffic is routed through a state-controlled proxy, I was dubious as to whether I would be able to VPN into the BBC’s London-based Point of Presence to gain access to the network and my work emails.
Like any other standard VPN setup, the connection between my laptop and the VPN sever in London is secure and encrypted, meaning that no-one can (in theory) monitor the sites that I visit or the data that is being transmitted.
It was for this reason that I wondered whether the Chinese would allow the connection to pass out of the country.
The government Internet proxy is there to ensure that Chinese citizens don’t access material that could be ‘damaging’ the integrity of the state. To that end sites such as BBC News are blocked and keyword searches sent to search engines are monitored for suspect behaviour.
Internet café’s are now licensed and regulated, which led to a vast decrease in their numbers a few years ago when enforcement came into place. I have only seen one Internet café whilst walking around Shanghai. Having said this, most hotels have Internet access available in their rooms along with CNN TV – both I believe are a concession to attract Western business travellers (I don’t believe CNN is available to domestic Chinese satellite customers). Nevertheless Internet access even from hotel rooms is piped via the proxy.
Reading up on Chinese Internet law before I flew out was tricky at best – with conflicting reports of what was possible and not possible. By the time I had read a few different sources on the matter I came to the conclusion that what was and wasn’t allowed didn’t match up with what was and wasn’t technically possible.
I’m still not clear even now whether accessing via VPN is considered a circumvention of the proxy security measure, however I’m acting in good faith and I don’t consider my use to be harmful or detrimental to the country.
On my personal laptop (yes, I always have to carry at least two laptops away with me on holiday), which doesn’t connect via the BBC’s VNP, I have managed to access BBC News via http://newsimg.bbc.co.uk rather than http://news.bbc.co.uk, which is a dummy hostname that is normally used to switch the serving of images and other server-intensive assets over to Akamai in the event of heavy load to the BBC News servers.
Again, I’m not clear whether using an alternative means to accessed an otherwise blocked website is against the law or not.
Despite all of the restrictions around Internet access within China, sites such as Alibaba.com remain popular (Yahoo! recently purchased Alibarba, a Chinese b2b website, for US$4bn). Internet in China is certainly a growth area, and anyone interested in the Internet – from infrastructure through to implantation of social software – would be wise to get acquainted with what’s going on here. Like other areas of technology, China is definitely looking to overtake the West on these frontiers. I do wonder how long it will be before the two Chinese languages of Mandarin and Cantonese statistically become the most popular spoken language on the Internet.