GreatFire June: Bloomberg Blocked As Well As Hundreds Of Additional Keywords On Weibo

GreatFire's first project, released in 2011, was this website, Analyzer. The site has not changed much over the years until this year! We'd like to invite you to try the new Analyzer - now called Blocky. Please let us know what you think by sending an email to support@greatfire.org.

The big question for people following online censorship in China is a simple: is censorship increasing or decreasing in China? Many cite the growth of microblogs such as Sina Weibo, as well as the total number of Internet users in China, and argue that while censorship is pervasive, overall, things are opening up. However, two developments during the month of June suggest otherwise. The first was that Bloomberg was blocked, the first time in years that a major, English-language news website was blocked. The second was that out of the 15,000+ keywords on Sina Weibo, Google and Wikipedia that we are monitoring, an additional 231 were blocked while only 24 were unblocked. It would seem that the grip on censorship is tightening.

In a curious incident, Henan News published a story mentioning the Great Firewall by name both in Chinese and English. The story was quickly deleted, but thanks to Google Cache you can still view it here.

Bloomberg Blocked - More To Come?

http://www.bloomberg.com was blocked on June 29. As a major, English-language news website, this means that Bloomberg has been singled out by the Chinese authorities. This followed a lengthy report by Bloomberg on the family wealth of Xi Jinping, the man presumed to replace Hu Jintao as Chairman of the Communist Party later this year. The obvious reason for blocking Bloomberg would be to prevent Chinese netizens from reading the story in the first place. This is not all that effective however, since blocking it only brought more attention to the story, and much of the content of the story could soon be found on other foreign media websites which themselves were not blocked. The authorities could have blocked access to the story without blocking Bloomberg altogether, as they did with a story in The Economist about the Bloomberg story on Xi Jinping. Another interpretation is that the authorities wanted to send a warning to foreign journalists in China: don't go too far, or we'll block you altogether, because bloomberg China http://www.bloomberg.cn/ which is a technical site and contains no reports of Xi Jingping is blocked even though it acquired an ICP license from Chinese authority ,  That would also be supported by the expulsion of a foreign journalist in May, the first such action since 1998. We could likely write a separate post on how foreign news organizations agree to self-censor their content in exchange for market access in China but for the purposes of this story we will assume that the authorities block the content that they want to block.

At almost the same time, the New York Times launched a Chinese edition of it's website, which has so far not been blocked. The fact that most other Chinese versions of foreign media websites are blocked suggest that this is just a question of time. Also, as we reported on July 3, the Weibo accounts of the New York Times were quickly closed on both Sina and Tencent.

Here's an overview of major news websites and which ones are currently blocked. We'll follow their progress with great interest.

English WebsiteChinese WebsiteComments
http://www.bbc.co.ukhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/zhongwen 
http://www.bloomberg.com- 
-http://www.boxun.com 
http://chinadigitaltimes.nethttp://chinadigitaltimes.net/chinese 
http://www.cnn.com- 
http://www.economist.com- 
http://www.ft.comhttp://www.ftchinese.comIndividual articles on the Chinese edition such as this one are blocked.
http://www.guardian.co.uk- 
http://www.huffingtonpost.com- 
http://www.nytimes.comhttp://cn.nytimes.comLaunched in June, 2012. Will it be blocked?
http://www.scmp.com- 
http://www.voanews.comhttp://www.voachinese.com 
http://wsj.comhttp://cn.wsj.com 

Google (Quietly) Continues To Bring Transparency To Censorship

As we reported last month, Google launched a new feature which notifies users trying to search for certain keywords that would otherwise be blocked by the Great Firewall. The new function was quickly disabled by the Chinese authorities by blocking access to the javascript file in which it was defined. Since then, Google has cleverly responded by embedding all the required code and data of what's blocked in the html file. This makes it difficult for the Great Firewall to disable this transparency function without blocking Google altogether. So far, they've done nothing and as this is written the feature is working in China.

If Google wants to, they could take this much further. If a user clicks on a URL known to be blocked, for example, they could inform the user and even offer suggestions of ways around the censorship. We'll keep following the Google vs Great Firewall battle closely.

Unblocked Foreign Websites Keep Getting Faster

As can be seen in the chart below, foreign websites that are not blocked continue the trend of getting faster in China. The data is based on average download speed of Alexa Top 500 websites not hosted in China, per month.

Loading chart..

Keywords Blocked And Unblocked

Below is a list of 231 unique keywords that were blocked in June. Only keywords that we know were not blocked before June are included. Also, there's a list of 24 keywords that were previously blocked, and were unblocked during June. As always, if you think anything is missing, please add it to our database for testing using the search bar on the top of this page. All URLs and keywords in our database are continously tested so that we can detect changes.

Other Notable Changes

Do you remember http://myspace.com? At least the people in charge of the Great Firewall seem to - they blocked it last month. On the other hand, http://www.rapidshare.com was unblocked at least as of June 1. http://www.bitly.com was blocked at least as of June 24 but the shorter domain http://bit.ly which is used for short links is still not blocked.

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Mon, Aug 03, 2020

Announcing the Release of GreatFire Appmaker

GreatFire (https://en.greatfire.org/), a China-focused censorship monitoring organization, is proud to announce that we have developed and released a new anti-censorship tool that will enable any blocked media outlet, blogger, human rights group, or civil society organization to evade censors and get their content onto the phones of millions of readers and supporters in China and other countries that censor the Internet.

GreatFire has built an Android mobile app creator, called “GreatFire AppMaker”, that can be used by organizations to unblock their content for users in China and other countries. Organizations can visit a website (https://appmaker.greatfire.org/) which will compile an app that is branded with the organization’s own logo and will feature their own, formerly blocked content. The app will also contain a special, censorship-circumventing web browser so that users can access the uncensored World Wide Web. The apps will use multiple strategies, including machine learning, to evade advanced censorship tactics employed by the Chinese authorities.  This project will work equally well in other countries that have China-like censorship restrictions. For both organizations and end users, the apps will be free, fast, and extremely easy to use.

This project was inspired by China-based GreatFire’s first-hand experience with our own FreeBrowser app (https://freebrowser.org/en) and desire to help small NGOs who may not have the in-house expertise to circumvent Chinese censorship. GreatFire’s anti-censorship tools have worked in China when others do not. FreeBrowser directs Chinese internet users to normally censored stories from the app’s start page (http://manyvoices.news/).

Fri, Jul 24, 2020

Apple, anticompetition, and censorship

On July 20, 2020, GreatFire wrote to all 13 members of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, requesting a thorough examination into Apple’s practice of censorship of its App Store, and an investigation into how the company collaborates with the Chinese authorities to maintain its unique position as one of the few foreign tech companies operating profitably in the Chinese digital market.  

This letter was sent a week before Apple CEO TIm Cook will be called for questioning in front of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. The CEOs of Amazon, Google and Facebook will also be questioned on July 27, as part of the Committee’s ongoing investigation into competition in the digital marketplace.

This hearing offers an opportunity to detail to the Subcommittee how Apple uses its closed operating ecosystem to not only abuse its market position but also to deprive certain users, most notably those in China, of their right to download and use apps related to privacy, secure communication, and censorship circumvention.

We hope that U.S. House representatives agree with our view that Apple should not be allowed to do elsewhere what would be considered as unacceptable in the U.S. Chinese citizens are not second class citizens. Private companies such as Apple compromise themselves and their self-proclaimed values of freedom and privacy when they collaborate with the Chinese government and its censors.

Mon, Jun 10, 2019

Apple Censoring Tibetan Information in China

Apple has a long history of censorship when it comes to information about Tibet. In 2009, it was revealed that several apps related to the Dalai Lama were not available in the China App Store. The developers of these apps were not notified that their apps were removed. When confronted with these instances of censorship, an Apple spokesperson simply said that the company “continues to comply with local laws”.

In December, 2017, at a conference in China, when asked about working with the Chinese authorities to censor the Apple App Store, Tim Cook proclaimed:

"Your choice is: do you participate, or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be. And my own view very strongly is you show up and you participate, you get in the arena because nothing ever changes from the sideline."

In the ten years since Apple was first criticized for working with the Chinese authorities to silence already marginalized voices, what has changed? Apple continues to strictly follow the censorship orders of the Chinese authorities. When does Tim Cook expect that his company will help to bring about positive change in China?

Based on data generated from https://applecensorship.com, Apple has now censored 29 popular Tibetan mobile applications in the China App Store. Tibetan-themed apps dealing with news, religious study, tourism, and even games are being censored by Apple. A full list of the censored apps appear below.

Thu, Jun 06, 2019

Report Shines Spotlight on Apple’s Censorship Practices in China

The newest Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index makes recommendations on what companies and governments need to do in order to improve the protection of internet users’ human rights around the world. Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) works to promote freedom of expression and privacy on the internet by creating global standards and incentives for companies to respect and protect users’ rights.

In their 2019 Accountability Index, RDR looks at the policies of 24 of the world’s most important internet companies in respect to freedom of expression and privacy and highlights the companies that have made improvements and those companies that need to do more. RDR notes that:

Insufficient transparency makes it easier for private parties, governments, and companies themselves to abuse their power over online speech and avoid accountability.

In particular, the report highlights how Apple has abused their power over online speech, and notes instances of this in China. According to the report, Apple has not disclosed data around the content that it removes from its App Store when faced with requests from the government authorities.

While [Apple] disclosed data about government requests to restrict accounts, it disclosed no data about content removal requests, such as requests to remove apps from its App Store. Apple revealed little about policies and practices affecting freedom of expression, scoring below all other U.S. companies in this category.

The report makes intelligent and sensible recommendations for governments. However, the recommendations also highlight how difficult it is to have these discussions with governments like China’s.

Thu, Nov 30, 2017

About those 674 apps that Apple censored in China

Apple opened the door on its censorship practices in China - but just a crack.
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