What it means when we say NYT is ‘blocked in China’

Shanghaiist has just posted a fairly snarky story claiming, as it summarizes well in the headline, that “The New York Times might or might not be blocked in China (but probably isn’t).” I think they’re off the mark.

The writer’s claim that it seems to work fine for Shanghaiist staff most of the time is a weak explanation of what’s going on, conflicts with my experience and those of many on Twitter, and results in an uninformative and dismissive post on a usually great site. [UPDATE 19:23 — The writer, James Griffiths, rightfully points out in this Twitter thread that he refers to greatfirewallofchina.org as well as Shanghaiist staff. I still question the value of that data when it is quickly refuted by experience, but noted for the record.]

(Those interested in question of why it might be blocked probably already know. If not, check Twitter or the site itself for the top China story.)

Blocking a site is not a national-level switch. The filtering can be done at various points of transit for the information, either at the local ISP level or at other nodes up to and including the point of transit across the Chinese border. But on my connection in Beijing, the site doesn’t load. All direct evidence I’m offering is from a Unicom household connection in Dongcheng, Beijing.

A block can be achieved by deleting or interfering with a DNS listing. DNS is the directory the network uses to translate a URL into a numerical address of the format that the internet uses. That doesn’t seem to be happening from my connection, but I have a setting that attempts to skip over the local DNS servers and instead retrieves information from Google. So, some may be blocked this way.

A block can be achieved by terminating the connection when a chosen keyword passes through the connection. The name of the leader featured today by the NYT does not seem to be blocked, because his English Wikipedia page is loading just fine (from here). His Chinese name, on the other hand, might be blocked, because I get a “connection reset” error.

The “connection reset” error usually indicates a machine somewhere along the path of the connection has detected an unwanted transmission. Using the protocols that run the internet, this intermediary can then send an error message to both the sending server (say Wikipedia or a newspaper) and to the receiver (my little laptop) saying, “Hey, something’s wrong here! Let’s reset!” The result is that you don’t get your content.

The “connection reset” error is what I’m getting for NYT. This means that somewhere in my transmission chain, it’s most likely that there is a keyword filter being triggered. For practical purposes, this means that even non-related stories on that site are inaccessible. This could be because the newspaper itself is a keyword. It could be triggered by a combination of keywords. It could be because the Chinese leader’s name is part of the code of the English page. Or it could be something else entirely.

It makes no sense to say something is “blocked in China” at an early stage. Instead, we can say it is blocked (or better yet “inaccessible”) from a given connection. And without my VPN (indeed, without the one of two VPNs I use that still works), the NYT is at this point blocked on my connection.

I’m not sure what the people at greatfirewallofchina.org are doing. Shanghaiist notes that they report the site still accessible. But the crowdsourced censorship monitor Herdict finds that a lot more reports of NYT being inaccessible from China are coming in. It would be unfortunate if people got the impression that the Times was crying wolf, when in actuality the picture is more complicated than either the Times or Shanghaiist let on.

[UPDATE 19.45 (last before signing off for the evening)

A few things of note have been pointed out to me.

  • The Times claims to have actually tested where they were inaccessible and found 31 cities experienced a trouble: "By 7 a.m. Friday in China, access to both the English- and Chinese-language Web sites of The Times was blocked from all 31 cities in mainland China tested."
  • It's been pointed out a few times that the specific argument that traffic due to a report of censorship overwhelming the servers just doesn't hold water. Aside from the fact that the paper handles things like the World Series just fine, the content is still OK via VPN, which would not help if the server was down.
  • https://en.greatfire.org/ is another site like Herdict, apparently focused on China only.
  • OK, it's Halloween weekend, and it's time to go!]

Further reading (I used to write about this a lot):

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