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

China May Be Biggest Winner From Ukraine Crisis

Missile sales, oil and gas shipments are among many areas that may drive Beijing and Moscow closer together in coming years More

Obama Faces Chaotic World, Limits of Power

Current foreign policy issues bring into focus challenges for US policymakers who are mindful of Americans' waning appetite for overseas military engagements More

SADC Meeting Lesotho Officials to Resolve Stalemate

Official says regional bloc has been engaged with leaders in Lesotho to resolve political disagreement that led to coup attempt 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.
West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015i
X
Carol Pearson
August 30, 2014 7:14 PM
A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video West Africa Ebola Vaccine Trials Possible by Early 2015

A U.S. health agency is speeding up clinical trials of a possible vaccine against the deadly Ebola virus that so far has killed more than 1,500 people in West Africa. If successful, the next step would be a larger trial in countries where the outbreak is occurring. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
Video

Video Survivors Commemorate 70th Anniversary of Nazi Liquidation of Jewish Ghetto

When the German Nazi army occupied the Polish city of Lodz in 1939, it marked the beginning of a long nightmare for the Jewish community that once made up one third of the population. Roughly 200,000 people were forced into the Lodz Ghetto. Less than 7,000 survived. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, some survivors gathered at the Union League Club in Chicago on the 70th anniversary of the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto to remember those who suffered at the hands of the Nazi regime.
Video

Video Cost to Raise Child in US Continues to Rise

The cost of raising a child in the United States continues to rise. In its latest annual report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says middle income families with a child born in 2013 can expect to spend more than $240,000 before that child turns 18. And sending that child to college more than doubles that amount. VOA’s Deborah Block visited with a couple with one child in Alexandria, Virginia, to learn if the report reflects their lifestyle.
Video

Video Chaotic Afghan Vote Recount Threatens Nation’s Future

Afghanistan’s troubled presidential election continues to be rocked by turmoil as an audit of the ballots drags on. The U.N. says the recount will not be completed before September 10. Observers say repeated disputes and delays are threatening the orderly transfer of power and could have dangerous consequences. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Ukraine Battles Pro-Russia Rebel Assault

After NATO concluded an emergency meeting to discuss the crisis in eastern Ukraine, the country is struggling to contain heavy fighting near the strategic port of Mariupol, on the Azov Sea. Separatist rebels are trying to capture the city, allegedly with Russian military help, and Ukraine's defense forces are digging in. VOA's Daniel Schearf spoke with analysts about what lies ahead for Ukraine.
Video

Video Growing Business Offers Paint with a Twist of Wine

Two New Orleans area women started a small business seven years ago with one thing in mind: to help their neighbors relieve the stress of coping with a hurricane's aftermath. Today their business, which pairs painting and a little bit of wine, has become one of the fastest growing franchises across the U.S. VOA’s June Soh met the entrepreneurs at their newest franchise location in the Washington suburbs.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials To Begin Next Week

The National Institutes of Health says it is launching early stage trials of a vaccine to prevent the Ebola virus, which has infected or killed thousands of people across West Africa. The World Health Organization says Ebola could infect more than 20,000 people across the region by the time the outbreak is over. The epidemic has health experts and governments scrambling to prevent more people from becoming infected. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Asian Bacteria Threatens Florida Orange Trees

Florida's citrus fruit industry is facing a serious threat from a bacteria carried by the Asian insect called psyllid. The widespread infestation again highlights the danger of transferring non-native species to American soil. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Aging Will Reduce Economic Growth Worldwide in Coming Decades

The world is getting older, fast. And as more people retire each year, fewer working-age people will be there to replace them. Bond rating agency Moody’s says that will lead to a decline in household savings; reducing global investments - which in turn, will lead to slower economic growth around the world. But experts say it’s not too late to mitigate the economic impact of the world’s aging populations. Mil Arcega has more.
Video

Video Is West Doing Enough to Tackle Islamic State?

U.S. President Barack Obama has ruled out sending ground troops to Iraq to fight militants of the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, despite officials in Washington describing the extremist group as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years. Henry Ridgwell reports from London on the growing uncertainty over whether the West’s response to ISIS will be enough to defeat the terrorist threat.
Video

Video Coalition to Fight Islamic State Could Reward Assad

The United States along with European and Mideast allies are considering a broader assault against Islamic State fighters who have spread from Syria into Iraq and risk further destabilizing an already troubled region. But as VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports, confronting those militants could end up helping the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Video

Video Made in America Socks Get Toehold in Online Fashion Market

Three young entrepreneurs are hoping to revolutionize the high-end sock industry by introducing all-American creations of their own. And they’re doing most of it the old-fashioned way. VOA’s Julie Taboh recently caught up with them to learn what goes into making their one-of-a-kind socks.
Video

Video Americans, Ex-Pats Send Relief Supplies to West Africa

Health organizations from around the world are sending supplies and specialists to the West African countries that are dealing with the worst Ebola outbreak in history. On a smaller scale, ordinary Americans and African expatriates living in the United States are doing the same. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.

AppleAndroid