China’s Internet users are at the mercy of government censors and the country’s so-called Great Firewall, which denies access to many sites that authorities don’t like. But one advocacy group hopes that exploiting a risky loophole will let them show uncensored information freely in mainland China.
Greatfire.org, a group that advocates for Chinese Internet freedom, claims it has made a number of blocked websites available this week including the BBC’s Chinese service and Boxun, a Chinese-language media service known for provocative stories.
“Few foreign media produce Chinese-language content for a Chinese audience,” a Greatfire co-founder said in a statement. “Firstly, I guess, because they don't have the resources to do that, but mainly because of the high likelihood that the content will get blocked.”
Greatfire's leaders refuse to divulge their identities for fear of retaliation by Chinese authorities.
China’s sophisticated censorship apparatus renders many foreign news websites, blogs and social media services like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube unusable within the country. That gives the government a monopoly on information that is difficult to break.
A small fraction of China’s 632 million Internet users get over the wall with the assistance of virtual private network software. But for most Chinese, the Web is a closely monitored place – and it seems to be getting even stricter.
“Cyberspace should be free and open, with rules to follow and always following the rule of law,” said Lu Wei, director of the State Internet Information Office during a conference on the Internet last week.
Shortly before the conference, the government tightened Internet controls by blocking local access to Verizon’s EdgeCast, which distributes content for tens of thousands of sites.
However, EdgeCast clients include many innocuous commercial sites, like Sony Mobile or Drupal, a popular project website. Making these pages inaccessible could make China an even more difficult environment for businesses to operate in.
Greatfire is attempting to create so-called mirror sites that are copies of the original ones, making the content visible behind the firewall.
But Greatfire’s methods open up the potential for backlash. The links to mirror pages were posted using Github, a social coding website popular among Chinese programmers; if Chinese censors decide to block the mirror sites, they might block Github as well.
The service was censored before, in January 2013, forcing many software developers to find new methods to stay in business.
Users on Chinese tech forum V2ex expressed fear that this strategy – known as “collateral freedom” -- would lead to other content delivery networks being blocked as well, such as Microsoft’s Azure and Amazon’s CloudFront. Greatfire has also been posting links to mirrors using these services.
Greatfire’s use of mirror sites has led to problems for companies that do business in China. When the Akamai network was taken down for hosting Greatfire sites in October, the Chinese operations of banking giant HSBC, another Akamai client, went down with it.
“We believe that the authorities wanted to block access to mirror websites we are hosting with Akamai,” Greatfire said in a statement on its site after the incident. “Regardless, the authorities have decided that they are better served by plugging a small leak than allowing commerce to thrive.”
On Github’s website, some programmers were livid at Greatfire for bringing them into the crossfire.
“We want coding without politics or any unrelated things around,” wrote developer Christopher Meng on Github’s forum. “We don't want to set up a proxy or tunnel to code just because someone tries to pollute the environment.”
Silbert is a special correspondent.