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).
Doug Bernard
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.”

You May Like

Ukraine President Appeals for More US Support

Speaking before Congress ahead of meeting with President Obama, Petro Poroshenko urges lawmakers to back Ukraine in its quest for freedom and democracy More

Photogallery Global Audience Watches as Scots Go to the Polls

People were almost equally divided over a vote for independence, watched closely by Britain's allies, investors and restive regions at home and abroad More

China to Invest $20B in India Amid Border Dispute

Border spat between armies of two countries in Himalayas underlines mutual tensions despite growing commercial ties highlighted by Xi Jinping's high-profile visit 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.
A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Wateri
X
September 17, 2014 8:44 PM
Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.
Video

Video NASA Picks Boeing, SpaceX to Carry Astronauts Into Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, has chosen Boeing and SpaceX companies to build the next generation of spacecraft that will carry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station by the year 2017. The deal with private industry enables NASA to end its dependence on Russia to send space crews into low Earth orbit and back. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Future of Ukrainian Former President's Estate Uncertain

More than six months after Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovych fled revolution to Russia, authorities have yet to gain control of his palatial estate. Protesters occupy the grounds and opened it to tourists but they are also refusing to turn it over to the state. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Mezhigirya, just north of Kyiv.
Video

Video China Muslims Work to Change Perceptions After Knife Attacks

China says its has sentenced three men to death and one woman to life in prison for a deadly knife attack in March that left more than 30 dead and 140 injured. Beijing says Muslim militants from China's restive western region of Xinjiang carried out the attacks. Now, more than six months after the incident, residents in the city are still coping with the aftermath. VOA's Bill Ide has more from Kunming.
Video

Video Enviropreneur Seeks to Save the Environment, Empower the Community

Lorna Rutto, a former banker, is now an ‘enviropreneur’ - turning plastic waste into furniture and fences discusses the challenges she faces in Africa with raw materials and the environment.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid