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

Video Positive Messaging Helps Revamp Ethiopia's Image

In country once connected with war, poverty, famine, headlines now focus on fast-growing economy, diplomatic reputation More

Russian Activist Thinks Kremlin Ordered Nemtsov's Death

Alexei Navalny says comments of Russian liberals who think government wasn't involved are 'nonsense.' More

Video Land Disputes Rise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers 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.
Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Imagei
X
Marthe van der Wolf
March 03, 2015 9:03 PM
Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Cyber War Rages Between Iran, US

A newly published report indicates Iran and the United States have increased their cyber attacks on each other, even as their top diplomats are working toward an agreement to guarantee Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and to free Iran from international sanctions. The development is part of a growing global trend. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.
Video

Video Land Disputes Arise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Ugandan police say there has been a sharp increase in land disputes, with 10 new cases being reported each day. The claims come amid an oil boom as investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers. Meanwhile, the people who have been living on the land for decades are chased away, sometimes with a heavy hand. VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
Video

Video In Russia, Many Doubt Opposition Leader's Killer Will Be Found

The funeral has been held in Moscow for Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader who was assassinated late Friday just meters from the Kremlin. Nemtsov joins a growing list of outspoken critics of Russia under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin who are believed to have been murdered for their work. VOA’s Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Simulated Astronauts Get Taste of Mars, in Hawaii

For generations, people have dreamed of traveling to Mars to explore Earth's closest planetary neighbor. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that while space agencies like NASA are planning manned missions to the planet, some volunteers in Hawaii are learning how humans will cope with months in isolation on a Mars base.
Video

Video Destruction of Iraq Artifacts Shocks Archaeologists

The city of Mosul was once one of the most culturally rich and religiously diverse cities in Iraq. That tradition is under attack by members of the Islamic State who have made Mosul their capital city. The Mosul Museum is the latest target of the group’s campaign of terror and destruction, and is of grave concern to archaeologists around the world. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Prepare to Defend Mariupol

Despite the ongoing ceasefire in Ukraine, soldiers in the city of Mariupol fear that pro-Russian separatists may be getting ready to attack. The separatists must take or encircle the city if they wish to gain land access to Crimea, which was annexed by Russia early last year. But Ukrainian forces, many of them volunteers, say they are determined to defend it. Patrick Wells reports from Mariupol.
Video

Video Moscow Restaurants Suffer in Bad Economy, Look for Opportunity

As low oil prices and Western sanctions force Russia's economy into recession, thousands of Moscow restaurants are expected to close their doors. Restaurant owners face rents tied to foreign currency, while rising food prices mean Russians are spending less when they dine out. One entrepreneur in Moscow has started a dinner kit delivery service for those who want to cook at home to save money but not skimp on quality. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports.
Video

Video Presidential Hopefuls Battle for Conservative Hearts and Minds

One after another, presumptive Republican presidential contenders auditioned for conservative support this week at the Conservative Political Action Conference held outside Washington. The rhetoric was tough as a large field of potential candidates tried to woo conservative support with red-meat attacks on President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress. VOA Political Columnist Jim Malone takes a look.
Video

Video Southern US Cities Preserve Civil Rights Heritage to Boost Tourism

There has been a surge of interest in the American civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, thanks in part to the Hollywood motion picture "Selma." Five decades later, communities in the South are embracing the dark chapters of their past with hopes of luring tourism dollars. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.
Video

Video Deep Under Antarctic Ice Sheet, Life!

With the end of summer in the Southern hemisphere, the Antarctic research season is over. Scientists from Northern Illinois University are back in their laboratory after a 3-month expedition on the Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest floating ice sheet. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, they hope to find clues to explain the dynamics of the rapidly melting ice and its impact on sea level rise.

All About America

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