Behind the Great Firewall

I’ve been living in China for close to 4 weeks now. Admittedly not long enough to get a real sense for what it is to live here, especially since my living conditions are not exactly similar to those of your average Chinese citizen, but enough to have faced a number of challenges on the connectivity side that I thought were worth sharing, especially since they cast a different light on some of the debates that are still raging in the west around Net Neutrality and traffic discrimination.

To clarify a number of things up front, I have fiber in my home, or at least what’s advertised as fiber (I suspect it’s FTTB, which is indeed considered fiber in most of the world) with a nominal service of 100 Mbps down and 4 Mbps up. As a foreigner here, I have essentially two issues:

  • the general low quality of any traffic outside of China,
  • the large number of blocked services.

The former is a challenge because most if not all of what I access is not hosted in China. As a consequence, no matter what I’m trying to do, my speed is close to what I’d expect of a slow DSL or even worse. And there’s nothing I can do about that. It’s not censorship, at least not openly, but it’s traffic degradation for sure.

The latter is an addressable challenge, at least on paper. I subscribed to a VPN service before I came, and it’s been working fine, mostly, except that by definition the VPN tunnels to a non-Chinese destination (hence crappy bandwidth) and also that it’s regularly targeted by the Chinese authorities, so somewhat unreliable. Sometimes it kicks me out, sometimes it slows to a crawl.

What astonished me was the sheer scale of the stuff that’s forbidden. The most shocking discovery (and with a great impact for me) was to find out that all Google services have been blocked since the doodle on June 4th to commemorate Tienanmen Square. And when I say all, it really is everything: search engine, mail, maps, shared documents, everything. Dropbox is also blocked, for reasons unknown. Every large non-Chinese hosted blog platform (blogger, of course, but also wordpress, tumblr, etc.) is out.

And then there’s the sheer randomness of it all. Some services you can’t access for no apparent reason, others are so slow that you can’t figure out if they’re blocked or just snail-paced. And as I experience this, I wish some of our politicians and media people, those who see net neutrality as the enemy, I wish they’d come here and experience what a radical version of non-neutrality is. Again, I have a VPN service to overcome most of this (at the cost of speed) but most people don’t and/or can’t afford one.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that not enshrining net neutrality is the equivalent of doing what the Chinese (or Iranian, or Indian) government does. But I look at the UK’s blocking mechanisms supposed to protect children but really targeting just about any kind of site for arcane reasons that no one can figure out, and I think that what I have here is an extreme version of the same thing.

After years of experiencing a reliable internet, one where you don’t have to wonder before you access content or as you wait for it to load whether it’s actually accessible, being behind the Great Firewall is a humbling experience. You suddenly become aware of things you had forgotten, like the importance of your page loading within a reasonable amount of time.

Etsy last week came out with an impassioned plea for Net Neutrality for that reason alone : the smaller commercial sites will actually lose business (more business) to the large retailers under a net discrimination regime, simply because they won’t be able to afford the cost of bringing down their page load times. Meanwhile, a moronic French representative of rights holders comes out with a speech where he argues that Net Neutrality protects the big guys (meaning Americans) against the little guys (meaning French) and I’m thinking this guy should come here a bit and experience a radical version of what he’s wishing for.

They say you don’t know what you have until you lost it. In the case of an open internet, I’m certainly here to tell you that that’s true.

Photo: The Great Wall of China (CC) lutmans