BBC uses “collateral freedom” system to bypass Chinese censorship

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Authorities in China have been blocking Chinese-language BBC content for a long time, but on Monday the anti-censorship campaign group Greatfire.org said it was working with the BBC to make it available there again.

Greatfire.org attempts to sneak content around China’s Great Firewall through a “collateral freedom” system of “unblockable” mirror sites delivered through content delivery network (CDN) services such as [company]Amazon[/company]’s CloudFront. It claims these are unblockable because the Great Firewall’s DNS cache poisoning techniques block entire domains, and doing so with something as widely used as Amazon Web Services (AWS) would be somewhat over-the-top, even for Chinese censors.

Judging by a screenshot included in Greatfire.org’s Monday blog post, the BBC’s Chinese-language content is currently being delivered through pages hosted in [company]Microsoft[/company]’s Azure cloud.

Chinese-language BBC content, as delivered through a "collateral freedom" mirror

Chinese-language BBC content, as delivered through a “collateral freedom” mirror

The post read:

Users in China have been able to access content using VPNs. The BBC has also recommended the Psiphon app as a circumvention tool. The Greatfire.org initiative, with the BBC’s support, makes the content available to users who just want the content to work, without needing special tools.

The post noted that this arrangement was made in the run-up to Taiwan’s local elections, which are set for November 29th, and would give “Chinese netizens a rare opportunity to glimpse how their cross straits cousins elect local officials in a transparent and open democratic process.”

Last week Greatfire.org claimed that attempts to censor its mirror sites had affected other users of the CDNs it employs, including many EdgeCast customers and Akamai customer HSBC, making it difficult for people to access their services in China too. Although this explanation of those events remains unconfirmed, it would imply that the Chinese authorities may be willing to call the central bluff of the “collateral freedom” project.

“We just officially launched the unblocked BBC web site today,” GreatFire.org co-founder Charlie Smith told me by email on Monday. “I guess if anything, this might put some more pressure on the authorities. They might have shut down EdgeCast last week but plenty more CDNs are out there and available in China and serving content that we have unblocked.”

I have contacted the BBC to request comment, and will update this piece if and when I receive it.

This article was updated on November 25 to note that the BBC’s Chinese-language content has long been blocked in China. It was the BBC’s standard English-language content that was blocked last month, in the context of the Hong Kong protests.

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