Surfing the web in China can be a real pain, even if you are not particularly looking for sites with questionable content or forbidden keywords, as described by China’s internet regulator. This is because of the heavy monitoring and censorship.

As The Atlantic reports, this is how the Great Firewall of China works.

The government bodies in charge of censoring the Internet have told [tech organizations in China] to get ready to unblock access from a list of specific Internet Protocol (IP) addresses—certain Internet cafés, access jacks in hotel rooms and conference centers where foreigners are expected to work or stay during the Olympic Games.

China has indeed erected a firewall—a barrier to keep its Internet users from dealing easily with the outside world—but that is only one part of a larger, complex structure of monitoring and censorship.

If you’re trying to reach one on that blacklist, the Chinese international-gateway servers will interrupt the transmission by sending an Internet “Reset” command both to your computer and to the one you’re trying to reach.

Instead of the site you want, you usually see an onscreen message beginning “The connection has been reset”; sometimes instead you get “Site not found.” Annoyingly, blogs hosted by the popular system Blogspot are on this IP blacklist. For a typical Google-type search, many of the links shown on the results page are from Wikipedia or one of these main blog sites. You will see these links when you search from inside China, but if you click on them, you won’t get what you want.

The final step involves the newest and most sophisticated part of the GFW: scanning the actual contents of each page—which stories The New York Times is featuring, what a China-related blog carries in its latest update—to judge its page-by-page acceptability. This again is done with mirrors. When you reach a favorite blog or news site and ask to see particular items, the requested pages come to you—and to the surveillance system at the same time.

But, there are a few workarounds:

As a practical matter, anyone in China who wants to get around the firewall can choose between two well-known and dependable alternatives: the proxy server and the VPN. A proxy server is a way of connecting your computer inside China with another one somewhere else—or usually to a series of foreign computers, automatically passing signals along to conceal where they really came from.

A VPN, or virtual private network, is a faster, fancier, and more elegant way to achieve the same result. Essentially a VPN creates your own private, encrypted channel that runs alongside the normal Internet.

But is this secure ?

As a technical matter, China could crack down on the proxies and VPNs whenever it pleased. Today the policy is: if a message comes through that the surveillance system cannot read because it’s encrypted, let’s wave it on through!

There’s hope though.

China could simply not afford to crack down that way. Every bank, every foreign manufacturing company, every retailer, every software vendor needs VPNs to exist.

Hummm… I just wonder how many foreign companies operating in China are actually using proxies and VPNs. My guess is that very few do.

Quick tip

A quick and easy way to get around the Great Firewall of China is to switch to Mozilla Firefox 2 instead of using your old and crappy MS Internet Explorer, and then add the Gladder extension. The website navigation is not encrypted, but it will let you browser your favorite websites.