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China: Removing the blocked RSS rumor

Categories: China

Very annoying [1] hearsay [2] and bullshit [3] is how the anonymous rumor from this past weekend that all RSS feeds have been blocked in China has been judged by bloggers both in the country itself, and those with years of posts spent dealing precisely with this ever-frustrating and -evolving complex matter; Jeremy Goldkorn, founder of Chinese Media blog Danwei [4], for example, responding [3] to the Ars Technica post dated October 4 [5] which set things off:

Uh, no. All blogs on Sina.com, China's biggest blog host have the word blog in the URL, and there are plenty of URLs and feeds that include the terms “rss” and “feed” that do not trip the Chinese Net Nanny's filters. Ars Technica feed are inaccessible in China because it is run through Feedburner's server (feeds.feedburner.com), which is blocked.

Unfortunately, uber-blog Boing Boing linked to this piece of nonsense.

The nonsense, originating in Ars Technica's reference of several unnamed and unspecified sources, linked to by BoingBoing not just once [6] but twice [7], both times neglects to point out that Feedburner feeds, blocked for the second time [8] since just this summer, still arrive perfectly well both at mainland readers as well as to Bloglines and Google Reader.

IT blogger I Yee this weekend writes [9]:

Everything seems to be OK…Domestic online RSS Readers can load feedburner feeds. Like many people's prediction, China-based online RSS Reader providers must do whatever they can do to keep feedburner feeds available in their RSS Readers. Technically, not very difficult to realize that, simply use the proxies.

And while the majority of response among China-based bloggers was in fact not indignation at the distortion but immediate offerings of get-around solutions, it's interesting noting not just how [10] far [11] the [12] rumor [13] spread, but what got added onto it, from alarm and calls for howling and waves of protest [14] to a petition and calls for international condemnation [15] to entertaining the notion of bartering with China's entry into a major regional free trade agreement [16] at TechCrunch and pages of discussion at Slashdot [17], to the point that when informed clarifications were soon after made, even the Committee to Protect Bloggers responded with somewhat of a flippant tone and still managed to perpetuate the rumor [18].

Davesgonechina at Mutant Palm provides a local simulation confirming I Yee's findings, demonstrating that for someone using a Chinese feed reader from the mainland, while RSS feeds of any sort from previously blocked sites such as Blogspot and LiveJournal are not getting picked up by the widely-used Feedsky, Feedburner feeds from others show up as they should:

Woah, hold on there kids! So far the only RSS block I know is Feedburner [19] – which has been blocked before [20]. Meanwhile online aggregators like Bloglines and Google Reader remain unaffected. Hell, my aggregator is still passing along feeds to me that are from Feedburner! Anyway, Ya I Yee has pointed out that Chinese RSS giant Feedsky [21] is an alternative. Which got me wondering:

Does Feedsky filter firewalled feeds?

Some quick experiments to see if Feedsky even acknowledges the existence of some feeds:

This blog's Blogspot feed: Yes, it is filtered [22].

This blog's Feedburner feed: Filtered [23].

My Flickr feed: No! [24]

Ya, I Yee's Feedburner Feed: No! [25] Wait, what? Why didn't mine go through?

The traditionally blocked BBC News Feed (which I get laundered by an aggregator): Yes, filtered. [26]

The Flickr page of Jake Appelbaum, home of the notorious Oiwan Lam photo link: No, not filtered! [27]

Jess Nevin's LiveJournal: Yup, filtered. [28]

“I don't really understand that Ars Technica article. Their feeds are run through feedburner – even though the host is nominally feeds.arstechnica.com, pinging it resolves to feeds.feedburner.com. So that's not evidence of a keyword block,” writes one Mutant Palm reader, to which is replied: “Yeah, I noticed the same thing with the Ars feeds. Meanwhile, they're getting “reports”.”

Throughout the various discussions, Tor [29] is of course mentioned, as are recently-adapted censorship circumvention tools [30] such as gladder [31], which comes with (blocked) Chinese-language instructions [32], and the multipurpose, it turns out, WiFi sniffer shield HotSpot [33].

Specific to Feedburner are what Carsten Ullrich has come up with [34] based on an earlier Blogspot accessing trick from I Yee [35], and instructions from Rick Martin at Panda Passport which leave open code that gets Feedburner feeds [2] pulled through to the Chinese service Feedsky (which, I Yee [9] points out [9], has a little-known English-language version [36]).