News / Asia

Freeing China's Sina Weibo

Employees work at their desks at a Sina Weibo office in Beijing's leading microblog site (File photo).
Employees work at their desks at a Sina Weibo office in Beijing's leading microblog site (File photo).
It’s a safe bet that no nation has a more comprehensive and redundant system for filtering and censoring the Internet than China.

Officially, it’s called the “Golden Shield Project” and is designed, among other things, to prevent “injury to the interests of the state or society.”

Unofficially, it’s known around the world as the Great Firewall of China, and since 2003 it has effectively blocked just about anything the Chinese government deems too controversial.

Since its launch, China has limited or completely blocked access to a growing number of websites based in other nations.

Increasingly, it also has been aggressive about censoring homegrown sites where Chinese citizens share their opinions, such as on Sina Weibo, China’s most popular social network [“weibo” means “microblog” in Mandarin].

That’s something one man is working hard to fight.

He can’t tell you where he is, won’t allow his voice to be recorded, and can be reached only via a secure line and encrypted phone. He goes by the pseudonym "Charlie Smith."

VOA has independently confirmed his identity and that he is co-founder of the website GreatFire.org.

Since 2011, Smith and other like-minded free-speech activists have been documenting China’s extensive censorship of the Internet at GreatFire.

“We started monitoring a few hundred URLs and now we’re up to about 100,000,” Smith told VOA. “It’s the No. 1 resource for checking to see whether a site is blocked in China.”

GreatFire has recorded hundreds of thousands of blocks, and Smith and his partners have become a major thorn in the side of Chinese officials.

A look at GreatFire one recent day showed how many of Google’s services were blocked [exactly all of them], which Wikipedia pages are blocked and by how much [100 percent block for the page on Charter 08, 55 percent for the article on Tank Man] and for how many days VOA’s Chinese service site has not been censored [just once, on Sept. 18, 2012].

Now Smith is hoping to up the stakes with a new app that he says allows Chinese “netizens” to see what they’re missing due to censorship on China’s largest social media platform, Sina Weibo.
 
'Collateral freedom'

It’s estimated that thousands of posts are deleted every day on popular social media sites like Baidu and Sina Weibo, a Twitter-like micro-blogging platform.

For example, one study in 2013 found that approximately 12 percent of posts on Sina Weibo were deleted by Chinese authorities, often within minutes after posting.

For several years now, Smith and his colleagues have been reposting as many of those censored posts by Chinese citizens as possible on another website FreeWeibo.com.

That’s helpful for many living outside of China, but not so much for those living there, as FreeWeibo and GreatFire are completely blocked by the Great Firewall.
Then, a little over a year ago, Smith had an idea how to break through the firewall. It began when he noticed that Chinese authorities suddenly blocked the popular web development site Github.com.

“Github is used by a lot of Chinese web developers to write code while America sleeps,” he said. “The authorities one day decided to block access to that site, probably because someone had reposted a petition asking the U.S. to deny entry for all those who were involved in creating the Great Firewall.”

The reaction, Smith said, was as swift as it was unexpected.

“All of these developers were like ‘Hey, what’s going on? This is our livelihood, why is this site blocked? This isn’t like the New York Times, this is how we make money,’” Smith said. “The dollar talks, right?”

Apparently so. Realizing their mistake, authorities quickly unblocked the site, presumably opting to allow a little unpleasant content through the Great Firewall in exchange for greater economic reward.

From that, Smith said, the idea of what he calls “collateral freedom” was born.

“We realized, well, hold on, these guys were serving up this banned information on a website that was too valuable to block,” he told VOA. “The Chinese couldn’t selectively block the controversial things without taking out the entire site, but that would have terrible consequences. So in essence, these cloud services are unblockable.”

With this in mind, Smith and his colleagues soon developed an app that collected the deleted Weibo posts they had been gathering and delivered them to users via a very popular service in China – Amazon’s AWS cloud-computing service. They called their app, first developed for Apple, “FreeWeibo.”

Since Amazon’s AWS is encrypted, individual posts can’t be blocked without blocking the entire site. But because AWS is used by so many major Chinese firms, it’s essentially unblockable.

“Collateral freedom,” said Smith.
 
From Apple to Android

“We published first on Apple and the app was working no problems,” Smith said. “And then the authorities called up Apple and said, ‘Can you remove that app?’ And Apple said, ‘Yeah, we can do that, no problem. Yes, sir.’ And they did.” Apple representatives declined to respond to several requests for comment.

Because Apple tightly controls all apps delivered through its proprietary App Store, Smith reasons the tech giant didn’t want to risk angering Chinese officials and losing a very profitable market all for one anti-censorship application.

But, he said, what was first seen as a setback was actually a blessing in disguise.
“This was good for us because we went to look at Android,” he said. “That market is so fragmented in China that it’s actually very difficult for them to call up all the stores and say, ‘Remove this,’ because there are just so many. Plus, our download link is now delivered through the cloud, so that’s unblockable as well.”

In China and elsewhere, there are now many sites where you can download the “FreeWeibo” app for Android devices. [This is just one of them.]

Smith estimates there are some 2,000 active daily downloads, and he said he expects that number to skyrocket with the approaching June 4 anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Every year around that date, Chinese authorities step up their censorship of blogging sites like Sina Weibo.

But this year, that censorship may be diluted for users with “FreeWeibo” who really want to see what their fellow citizens are posting online.

“This app is totally seamless,” Smith said. “You get it, install it, bang, you don’t have to do anything, no changes on your phone, all the information gets delivered, you’re done.”

And it doesn’t just stop with Sina Weibo.

Using the same collateral damage idea, Smith said “anything that’s blocked in China, we can do the same thing.” That means just about any content currently censored by the Great Firewall – from news reports to regime critics and anything else – might now find a way into China.

“We want to expand this out, on a paid-for basis, as a way of sustaining what we’re doing,” Smith said. “We’ve been pretty much self-funded to this point, but our bills are starting to go way up. So we’re trying to use this as our business model.”

Doug Bernard

dbjohnson+voanews.com

Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

You May Like

Multimedia Obama, Modi Break Nuclear Deal Deadlock

Impasse over liability issues had been stalling bilateral civilian nuclear cooperation; deal reached at start of US president's three-day visit to India More

WHO's Late Efforts in Tackling Ebola Highlight Need for Reform

Health experts debate measures to reform agency’s response to global public health emergencies in special one-day session on deadly outbreak More

One Tumultuous Year in Power for CAR's President

As sectarian violence raged across Central African Republic, interim President Catherine Samba-Panza has Herculean task: to end civil war and put country back on right track More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Ernie Diaz from: Beijing
May 17, 2014 7:00 AM
1. Good article - but there's already Shadowsocks.org, an app that gets by the Firewall, and so many Chinese with VPNs that we have 33m Twitter users to America's 23m (via TNW).
2. Weibo engagement, dampened by aggressive censorship, has declined to the point where 10% of poster put up 90% of content. Social dissent is migrating to WeChat, albeit now it's much less well-broadcast.


by: Anonymous
May 15, 2014 1:09 AM
I think this is one of those issues where we have to ask ourselves whether we should focus on solving the problem or focus on creating more problems to solve the problem. I would prefer the former, but I suppose the latter creates jobs.


by: MOD from: China
May 14, 2014 10:52 PM
WHY Every time I want to comment you say that you have to censor it......What a "free VOA"

In Response

by: Doug Bernard
May 15, 2014 8:04 AM
MOD, I don't believe you're being censored at all.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youthi
X
Julie Taboh
January 23, 2015 11:08 PM
Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.
Video

Video US Marching Bands Grow Into a Show of Their Own

The 2014 Super Bowl halftime show was the most-watched in history - attracting an estimated 115 million viewers. That event featured pop star Bruno Mars. But the halftime show tradition started with marching bands, which still dominate the entertainment at U.S. high school and college American football games. But as Enming Liu reports in this story narrated by Adrianna Zhang, marching bands have grown into a show of their own.
Video

Video Secular, Religious Kurds Face Off in Southeast Turkey

Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast has been rocked by violence between religious and secular Kurds. Dorian Jones reports on the reasons behind the stand-off from the region's main city of Diyarbakir, which suffered the bloodiest fighting.
Video

Video Kenya: Misuse of Antibiotics Leading to Resistance by Immune System

In Kenya, the rise of drug resistant bacteria could reverse the gains made by medical science over diseases that were once treatable. Kenyans could be at risk of fatalities as a result if the power in antibiotics is not preserved. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story from Nairobi.
Video

Video Solar-Powered Plane Getting Ready to Circumnavigate Globe

Pilots of the solar plane that already set records flying without a drop of fuel are close to making their first attempt to fly the craft around the globe. They plan to do it in 25 flying days over a five month period. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video How Experts Decide Ethiopia Has the Best Coffee

Ethiopia’s coffee has been ranked as the best in the world by an international group of coffee connoisseurs. Not surprisingly, coffee is a top export for the country. But at home it is a source of pride. Marthe van der Wolf in Addis Ababa decided to find out what makes the bean and brew so special and how experts make their determinations.
Video

Video Yazidi Refugees at Center of Political Fight Between Turkey, Kurds

The treatment of thousands of Yazidis refugees who fled to Turkey to escape attacks by Islamic State militants has become the center of a dispute between the Turkish government and the country's pro-Kurdish movement. VOA's Dorian Jones reports.
Video

Video World’s Richest 1% Forecast to Own More Than Half of Global Wealth

The combined wealth of the world's richest 1 percent will overtake that of the remaining 99 percent at some point in 2016, according to the anti-poverty charity Oxfam. Campaigners are demanding that policymakers take action to address the widening gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid