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Building a backdoor to your WordPress blog

So check this out: http://ice.citizenlab.org/ethanz/

Nart Villeneuve and I are preparing for a talk on Friday in Manila on freedom of expression in Asian cyberspace – it includes the talks he and I often give on secure publishing, secure email, anonymity, encryption and so on. While working on the outline for the talk, we got to talking about the idea of pre-emptively planning for your blog to be blocked by Internet censors – if you knew that your blog was likely to be blocked, what could you do to make it as easy as possible for your regular readers and for casual users to find mirror sites for your content?

One thing you can do is make the investment of time – and a little money – to run your blog on a standalone blogging server that stores your content in a SQL database. (Both Moveable Type and WordPress fit the bill – both he and I run WordPress, so that’s what we experimented with.)

If I managed to truly piss off the Chinese authorities, it’s possible that ethanzuckerman.com would be blocked within the Chinese firewall. (While I’ve gotten a lot of reports that freehaowu.org is blocked with China, I don’t think this is actually intentional, despite my earlier post – I think it’s an artifact of how I’m redirecting that domain name… the site itself is not blocked, just four domain names I’m pointing to it.) There are two ways the firewall would likely do this: it could block either the IP address that ethanzuckerman.com lives on, or it could block the domain name, refusing to associate an IP address with ethanzuckerman.com.

In the first case, an IP block, I need to move my content to another server on another IP address to make it accesible to people in China. (In the second case, I need to register a new domain name and encourage people to access the blog through that… or tell them to access it directly through the IP.) While WordPress makes migrating content relatively easy through a database dump, there’s a much easier way to move – keep the database, move the front end.

On an unblocked IP, install a copy of WordPress. Rather than setting up a new database, change the configuration file to point to your existing WordPress database, using the IP address of the server the datbase is located on, rather than “localhost”. The new blog will have the default WordPress appearance, but all the posts and comments of your existing blog – like the blog Nart and I just set up on his server in under 90 seconds. If only the IP is being blocked, you could then make a change to your DNS record and point the site to the new address, and your users would have access within a day or two, as the new DNS settings propogate. If both name and IP are blocked, you need to circulate the new name and IP.

While WordPress handles this configuration relatively well, allowing comments on either blog, it’s not flawless – set up this way, my real blog seems to keep reverting to WordPress’s default stylesheet. But it’s certainly a workable solution in case of an emergency. You can continue posting to the same site, your users can keep commenting, and you can configure a theoretically limitless set of mirrors if you’re afraid your new site will be blocked as well.

At dinner tonight, Isaac Mao – a man who’s no stranger to being blocked by the Chinese firewall – mentioned that he’s getting fed up with how often his site is inaccessible and is thinking about moving to a server outside of China. In discussing how this setup might work for Isaac, the obvious question arises – how do you get people to know where your new blog is if you’re being blocked by name and by IP.

Isaac has one very clever solution – a Skype robot which tells people whether his site is up or down, where they can find a mirror, whether he’s in detention. Nart came up with another clever option – run Google Ads on your own name. If isaacmao.com is blocked, a Google search for “isaac mao” could turn up an ad for “Read Isaac Mao at newissacmao.com”.

I think there’s something vaguely charming about using Google to subvert Chinese internet censorship, don’t you?

3 thoughts on “Building a backdoor to your WordPress blog”

  1. Why not have a Flickr photostream with web address updates as images. It would be hard to filter images based on content. I’m even wondering if one couldn’t have one’s blog content automatically saved as flickr images – PNG files of the text output from your blog….

  2. What i wonder is – could a product be leveraged out of this? Is there something we could produce or contract to produce and sell. If anyone has any ideas – I’m always looking for fresh ideas, email me at ‘talk’ at my website above (its justmy personal bio site, no sales – ps hoping to add my own blog soon) any shoot me a line if you want to discuss more in detail, for the right idea i would sponsor all the costs – Don

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