It slows down your browsing. It makes some Web sites inaccessible for no discernible reason. It doesn't even offer you any xiao long bao or pu'er tea for your troubles. But if you want to know what life behind the Great Firewall of China is like, then the Firefox plug-in China Channel is the cheapest and fastest way to experience using the Internet in China without actually being there. as it renders under the China Channel... (Credit: CNET Networks)

After installation, getting to experience Web surfing the way the Chinese do isn't hard at all. Users have three ways to activate China Channel: via the China Channel toolbar, a navigation bar button that you must drag and drop onto the bar to get access to, and a status bar button. The buttons function by opening a menu, from which you choose to switch from None to the China Channel. Much like the IE Tab extension, the page will then render as if your IP address is inside China.

The toolbar is interesting for a slightly different workflow that results in a Web page that informs you of your IP address and its country of origin. Choose the China Channel from the drop down, and then hit the big red Go button. With China Channel activated, the page will declare that the plug-in has been activated. Switch back to None and refresh the page, and it changes to reflect your proxy server-free surfing experience.

...and unblocked by the Great Firewall. (Credit: CNET Networks)

The experience drives home the point of just how severe Internet censorship is in China, going beyond government hot-topic issues like Tibet and Tiannamen Square to that hotbed of revolutionaries known as Wikipedia. Even my own innocuous blog was blocked when I was there, although two years later it seems to be free. Or at least it was when I tested out China Channel: while sensitive material seems to be permanently blocked, the 30,000 employees of the Great Firewall appear to apply their censorship in a more arbitrary manner for less topical Web sites.

This is a great experiential plug-in that's worth grabbing just to see how citizens in countries with Internet censorship have to struggle with hamstrung browsing.