It’s been a busy week for ChinaGeeks and ChinaTrolls alike, what with the revolution that wasn’t and its raft of associated questions (inquiring minds want to know: Is Mary Kaye Huntsman, wife of U.S. ambassador John Huntsman and notorious McFlurry addict, the foxiest spouse in the 2012 republican presidential field? We say yes yes and yes!). Safely ensconced in ChinaGeek HQ (read: C. Custer’s private room at Latte) the day of the hullaboxun, we picked up on an interesting tidbit that has, up to this point, flown largely under everyone’s radar. As part of ChinaGeeks’ ongoing commitment to public service and the promotion of Western information imperialism, we thought we would share it with you.
The day it all didn’t go down, we tracked down a good friend at Tsinghua university to ask how the whole thing was playing out on the campus of China’s most wired university. Knowing now how the events of the day unfolded, it will probably come as no surprise to the reader that even to this fully bilingual, painfully tech-savvy friend of ours the news that the Big Mac revolution was underway came as a somewhat of a shock.
(Random tangent: Seriously, whose idea was it to meet at McDonald’s? Is this a revolution or a fifth grade field trip? Somewhere–probably the girls’ locker room at Beijing No. 4 High School–the ghost of Chairman Mao is facepalming)
With that bit of non-news confirmed, our conversation drifted into other topics. Several minutes and several changes of subject later, Tsinghua Friend said:
“I heard Tsinghua developed a new browser that can access facebook and twitter”
Huh? What was that?
HM: so you mean it’s got a built-in proxy?
THF: not sure, it’s built on ipv6
This was news to us. Also, what’s “ipv6”? Sounds shiny.
HM: doesn’t sound like something that would be politically possible
THF: i was surprised too
but tsinghua wants to launch it for the 100th anniversary i think
Now that is indeed interesting news. Our curiosity piqued, we followed the link Tsinghua Friend sent us. Here’s a screenshot for the lazy and the Chinese-illiterate out there:
At first glance, it all seems to fit with Tsinghua Friend’s description. We’ve got the Centenary Celebration logo, the browser name (a combination of Tsinghua’s official school color–purple–and the browser’s Firefox foundation), and an option to download the sucker. Being the curious critters we are, we clicked the download link.
17 hours left . . .
Yikes, looks like that’s not an option. So where else can we find this thing? Sina.com to the rescue!
(Interesting side note: Purplefox is now at #7 on sina’s list of most downloaded browsers this week. Not exactly setting the world on fire, but still one spot ahead of the China version of Firefox itself, and definitely enough to confirm that we’re not the only ones taking notice.)
Firing up the browser, we’re greeted with what looks like a slightly stripped-down Firefox interface, done up in a tasteful shade of light purple.
Default page is the download page of the browser itself, no shock there.
More interesting are the three links in the bookmarks bar: Youtube, Blogger, and Facebook. Blogger, we could care less about (Blogs are dead, you see . . .), but those other two rank pretty high on our list of frequently visited sites.
So does it work?
Short answer is, “results may vary”.
The good news is that you don’t need to be a Tsinghua student to download and use the browser, nor do you need to be on campus at the university. Anyone can download and use the browser anywhere they want.
In our tests both at home and in various locations around Sanlitun, we found that sometimes Youtube or Facebook were accessible (always one or the other. We never got both to work at the same time.), sometimes timed out. When we were able to access Facebook, we weren’t always able to log in successfully. Speeds were significantly slower than with a VPN. But the bottom line is, the thing works. Check the screenshot:
It appears that the browser is, for the most part, as advertised, which immediately raises all kinds of questions. Let’s tick through some of the most obvious ones, shall we?
Q: How does this thing work?
Tsinghua Friend is not a computer science major, and we’re more of a China geek than an actual geek, so unfortunately (mercifully?), we can’t go into great detail on all the technical wizardry going on in the back end. Our first instinct was to say “fairy magic”, actually.
A little googling brought us up to speed, though. The key lies in in the browser being built to access, by default, the ipv6 version of a web page.
In a very brief nutshell (and with apologies in advance to all the techies out there to whom this explanation is painfully simplistic. Feel free to chime in in the comments on all the places we’ve gotten this wrong), ipv6 is a system by which web sites are assigned the actual physical address that a browser directs itself to when you request, for example, that it show you “facebook.com”. It’s the successor to a previous standard known as ipv4, upon which almost all of the internet as we know it was built.
The switchover is necessary because, as you might have heard, someday very soon ipv4 will run out of addresses. Ivp6, on the other hand, was built with something on the order of a few hundred billion addresses per person on planet Earth, so it’s probably fair to say that once the transition to ipv6 is complete, space will no longer be an issue.
The numerical addresses behind the web addresses we type into our browsers are, almost without exception, ipv4. However, some of the more tech-forward outfits out there have already started the migration to ipv6. As you might imagine, prominent among these are Google and Facebook. As far as we were able to find in limited, desultory googling, Twitter does not yet have an ipv6 address (once again, if we’re wrong on this, feel free to correct us).
Purplefox comes with a built-in list of ipv6 addresses for major sites that have already made the switch. So when you type in one of those sites, it automatically directs your page request to the ipv6 version of the site.
(Worth noting is that you can actually do this trick in most standard browsers, but since they don’t do the routing automatically, you have to enter the actual numerical ipv6 address into your address bar with brackets around it. To access Facebook, for example, you enter “[2620:0:1cfe:face:b00c::3]”. When we tried this using Chrome, we were able to open Facebook’s front page, but we weren’t able to log in. Your mileage may vary.)
For whatever reason, the Great Firewall is not currently set up to block on a consistent basis the ipv6 versions of sites whose ipv4 versions are on the banlist.
Q: Why not?
A: Didn’t you see where we wrote “for whatever reason?”. Do we look like Li Changchun to you? On second thought, don’t answer that (he looks much better in red than we do) . . .
If we had to speculate (and since saying something on the internet automatically makes it true, that’s just what we’re going to do), we would guess that the answer is “because they haven’t gotten around to it yet.”
Ipv6 is coming, make no mistake about that. At some point, if they want to maintain the integrity of their reality distortion field, the Infocops here are going to have to get around to addressing ipv6. But it may still be awhile before that day arrives.
With everything else that’s on their plates, it’s probably no surprise that ipv6 isn’t very high on the priority list. So until they get the hole patched, this whole Purplefox thing will make a pretty neat little party trick (assuming you go to the same kind of parties we do. Pi recitation throwdown, anyone?).
Q: OMG WE HAZ TEH INTERNETS BAK!! UP WIF TEH REVOLUSHUN!!
A: Hold your horses there, Sparky! Remember, this only works for websites that have a ipv6 version. Right now, that’s not a huge list. The one site that would make this whole thing really interesting–Twitter–is not on the list, at least as far as we’ve been able to find. And anyway, the only person in China who uses Twitter is Ai Weiwei (or maybe it just seems like it . . .).
Don’t believe us, ask your Chinese girlfriend. No really, go ask her. We’ll wait . . .
See? We told you.
The clincher on the whole thing is that there’s no mobile version of the browser, so all those millions of folks out in the hinterlands just getting on the mobile web, the folks who wouldn’t know a VPN if it bit them on the pigu, won’t be able to bask in Purplefox’s jasmine-scented glory.
Besides, if Tsinghua is at the cutting edge of ipv6 in China, then you’d better believe they’re at the cutting edge of how to block ipv6, whether they like it or not.
Q: Wait, what do you mean, “whether they like it or not?”
A: Well, it’s not exactly a secret that a lot of the bright young things out at Tsinghua aren’t exactly fans of the GFW. Actually, it might be more accurate to say “hold it in open contempt”.
QHF: a lot of tsinghua geeks make fun of the GFW
i saw an ad recruiting interns for the internet center
they used a tinyurl link
which is blocked
the ad says “链接在墙外，非诚勿扰“
so it’s basically like “if you’re not smart enough to figure out how to see this, don’t even bother applying”?
they put up 2 huge ad boards in our dorm area
which made me laugh
Which brings us to the most interesting question. Why wou . . .
Q: WHY WOULD TSINGHUA DO SOMETHING LIKE THIS?!
A: Right, that’s what we were going to say. You’re quite the eager beaver, aren’t you?
Short answer is: your guess is as good as ours.
A quick spin through the internets (Google, Baidu, and Weibo) for information on how this browser got the green light or interviews with the people involved in building it came up empty. Then again, we’re lazy, and our head is starting to hurt. Commenters who can dig up more solid information, 欢迎你们！
Since the internet’s primary purpose is uniformed speculation, you better believe that we and Tsinghua Friend have our own theories. There’s the “geeks hate the firewall theory”, there’s the “100th anniversary celebration theory”, there’s the “look, China can build an ipv6 browser too!” theory, and there’s the “2000 words into this post I’m too tired to make up another theory” theory.
It’s actually not too far-fetched that China’s premier technical university would try to build a browser around ipv6. Tsinghua has aggressively rolled out ipv6 connectivity out across its own campus, and ipv6 is at the heart of the government’s efforts to vault China ahead in the race for next-generation internet predominance.
But considering that the three links preinstalled in the browser’s bookmarks bar are three sites that, technically speaking, are illegal to view inside China, it’s hard to swallow the idea that the people who put this together didn’t have other things in mind besides the technological arms race.
Citing national prestige as the ostensible rationale for developing a browser that undermines what the Chinese government sees as a crucial weapon in the fight to protect that prestige.
Now that’s cheeky.
Q: So what’s it all mean?
A: You know what, we’re tired of all your questions (actually, after all this typing, we’re just tired generally). That’s what the comments section is for! You’ve got the basics, go figure it out for yourself!
. . .
. . .
Go on, get out of here! Get off my lawn!
. . .
No, seriously. Get off my lawn.
Update: And we didn’t even start on the question of whether there’s some kind of black magic GFW tracking software built into the back end of Purplefox. Download at your own risk!