My run-in with the Great Firewall of China
Recently I was developing a website for a client whose primary export market is in China. Needless to say I was a little alarmed when my client’s representatives in China reported that they couldn’t access their new site.
My client has reps in both Shanghai and Beijing, neither of who could see the website, so I knew it wasn’t a localized issue. My immediate suspicion was that the infamous “Great Firewall of China” was to blame. Thankfully I was able to take a few simple steps to diagnose the problem and get the site up and running.
What is the Great Firewall of China?
For anyone who doesn’t already know, the “Great Firewall of China” is the informal name given to the vast Internet censorship apparatus of the Chinese government. Sites considered injurous to the public good are blocked on a massive scale, so that they are innaccessible to Internet users within China.
How to test if your site is blocked
For foreign businesses and web designers who need to ensure their website reaches a Chinese audience, there are several tools which test a site’s availability from servers within China.
Website monitoring company WebSitePulse offer a free service to check if a website makes it past the Great Firewall of China. You can test your site using servers in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. WebSitePulse also do a side by side comparion with servers in the US, Germany or Australia, so you can compare the responses.
WatchMouse offer a free service which pings your website from a number of servers worldwide, including one in Shanghai. If your website is being blocked, the Shanghai server will report 100% packet loss.
One of the common methods of censoring a site is by IP blocking. Unfortunately, if the banned site is on a shared web host, all sites that share the same IP address are also blocked. This is what I believe happened in my case.
Luckily there is a simple workaround to sidestep issues with using a shared IP address: buy a static IP address. If your website has a unique IP address then it can’t be blocked simply because it shares a server with a banned site.
Within an hour of purchasing a static IP adress, my client’s website could be reached from within China. WebSitePulse and WatchMouse’s Chinese servers could see the site, and more importantly, my client’s reps in Shanghai and Beijing could too.