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App Allowing Chinese Citizens to Access Global Internet Quickly Disappears

This photo taken on Nov. 6, 2018, shows people visiting a booth of Qihoo 360 at the Light of Internet Expo ahead of the 5th World Internet Conference in Wuzhen.

A mobile app launched last week in China that many there hoped would allow access to long banned Western social media sites abruptly disappeared from Chinese app stores a day after its unveiling.

Tuber, an Andriod app backed by Chinese cyber security software giant Qihoo 360, first appeared to be officially available last Friday. It offered Chinese citizens limited access to websites such as YouTube, Facebook and Google, and it facilitated some 5 million downloads following its debut.

Yet a day later, the Tuber app disappeared from mobile app stores, including one run by Huawei Technologies Co. A search for the app’s website yielded no results when VOA checked Monday. It’s unclear whether the government ordered the takedown of the app.

Experts told VOA that such ventures are sometimes designed to create the illusion of choice to users eager to gain access to the global internet, but these circumvention tools are sometimes deleted if they are deemed by the Chinese government to be too popular with consumers.

FILE PHOTO: The messenger app WeChat is seen next to its logo in this illustration picture taken Aug. 7, 2020.
FILE PHOTO: The messenger app WeChat is seen next to its logo in this illustration picture taken Aug. 7, 2020.

Short-lived frenzy

Chinese users hailed their newfound ability to visit long banned websites before the app was removed last Saturday.

Several now banned articles introducing Tuber went viral Friday on China's super app WeChat and seem to have contributed to Tuber’s overnight success.

Sporting a logo similar to that of YouTube, Tuber’s main page offered a feed of YouTube videos, while another tab allowed users go to Western websites banned in China.

A reporter at Chinese state media Global Times tweeted that the move is “good for China's stability and it's a great step for China's opening up.”

Users noticed, though, that the browser came with its own censorship already included. References to sensitive political issues, such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and the more recent Hong Kong protests, were omitted, according to a Reuters check. YouTube queries for politically sensitive keywords such as “Tiananmen” and “Xi Jinping” returned no results on the app, according to TechCrunch.

Some terms in the users’ agreement also raised concerns among observers. According to the app’s terms of service, the platform could suspend users’ accounts and share their data “with the relevant authorities” if they “actively browse or disseminate” content that breaches the constitution, endangers national security and sovereignty, spreads rumors, disrupts social orders or violates other local laws.

Additionally, the terms of service stated the collection of personal information about users related to national security, public safety and public health does not require user authorization.

Meanwhile, users of the app had to register through a Chinese phone number, which is tied to a person’s real identity, and allows GPS location tracking.

Since its removal last Saturday, those who downloaded the app received a message that Tuber is "undergoing a system upgrade," according to TechCrunch.

Not the first attempt

Sarah Cook, a senior research analyst for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House, a watchdog organization, told VOA the brief availability of the new app might be a way for the Chinese government to create the “illusion of choice” to users who want to use the global internet, especially for communications that are not sensitive.

“By facilitating and controlling the access, the Chinese Communist Party is able to ensure that their browsing indeed stays within approved limits,” she said.

Cook added that by contrast, when a Chinese internet user jumps the Great Firewall with an independent VPN, then even if they were looking for entertainment content, they are likely to come across more politically sensitive information.

Tuber is not the first browser in China that attempted to provide Chinese citizens with some access to the Western internet, although few have drawn as much attention.

About a year ago, there was a similar effort made with a mobile browser called Kuniao that was approved by China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology. It purported to allow users to bypass internet censorship, though critics also suggested that it simply reduced the scope of censorship, rather than allowing people to fully circumvent controls.

“But within two days of its launch, Kuniao’s website crashed from the high demand and it was soon blocked entirely. The official position on it seemed to sour quickly and online references to the browser were also deleted,” Cook said.

A Chinese blogger who has been following China’s Great Fire Wall and who requested anonymity for fear of government retaliation told VOA the latest moves are telling. The blogger said the fate of both Tuber and Kuniao shows the government is increasingly unable to control sophisticated circumvention tools, including commercially available VPN (virtual private network) services and tools developed by tech-savvy amateurs.

“The government has actually allowed a considerable number of these web browsers,” the blogger said. “It helps the government to achieve some level of monitoring over these Internet users compared to those who use VPN services.

“These browsers are remarkably reliable when used within limited groups. But when they've become overly popular, the government will inevitably intervene,” the blogger said, adding it wouldn’t be surprising to see similar circumvention tools coming out soon.