GreatFire May: Google and Sina Adapt, The Great Firewall Strikes Back

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.

After analyzing our May data, which now covers more than 30,000 URLs, we can confidently say that the month of May was uneventful. Few major websites were blocked or unblocked. Perhaps this lack of activity was related to leadership change in China (and not just at the very top - see Rumors say China's chief internet censor replaced. While the Great Firewall didn't change much, Google and Sina, in very different ways, both took important steps in trying to deal with the pervasive censorship.

Google Strikes - The Great Firewall Hits Back

"We have observed that searching for certain keywords on Google from within mainland China will often lead to a temporary service disruption." 
Google Support, May 31, 2012.

Starting on May 31, Google displayed a warning message to users from China if they enter any of the many keywords blocked by the Great Firewall. Users could choose to continue the search which would most likely result in the connection being reset for a minute or so. Or they had the possibility to edit the search query and find another, non-blocked, way of searching for the same thing.

For the 16.7% of Chinese web users that use Google, the immediate effects of this was that the censorship became more transparent. To make it even more transparent, Google could choose to publish the list of blocked keywords. Meanwhile, we've reverse-engineered the full list. You can also browse our own database of keywords blocked on Google. Another effect was that the user experience improved. Since a reset connection means that you can't use the service at all for about a minute, a warning message is much more convenient. Furthermore, the suggestion function that offers autocompletion of common searches worked better. Try typing "tiananm", for example.

However, after a month of relative inactivity, this got the GFW team to strike back. Within a day, they disabled the new Google feature by blocking the javascript file that contains the code altogether. This of course makes us wonder what Google's next move will be. It would be very easy to rename the file or to embed it on the html page making it more difficult to selectively block features.

Going forward, there is much more that Google can do. Rather than just informing users that a search query has been censored, they could offer ways to get around it. The most obvious one would be to redirect users (automatically or manually) to the encrypted version of Google which is still not blocked in China (https://www.google.com.hk).

The fact that this functionality was rolled out, and not just on Google Hong Kong but actually any Google search engine that is accessed from China, shows that Google is actively working on ways to get around censorship in China. For more on this exciting game, read Google Confronts the Great Firewall on Foreign Policy and the announcement on the Google Search Blog.

https://www.googleusercontent.com was blocked in May which is the only major Great Firewall change during the month which involved Google.

How to get your account closed on Sina Weibo

On May 29, Sina Weibo announced a new user-points system to regulate users (original, interpreted by ZDNetAsia). The concept is that each Weibo user will be given 80 points to start with. Any behaviour deemed inappropriate by censors will cause points to be deducted. If the user reaches 0 points, his or her account will be closed.

Just like with the user contract announced last month, the description of what is allowed and not is very general. So what is a user who wants to get their account closed to do? Here are a few tips:

  1. Post a lot of tweets containing these keywords that are all blocked on Sina Weibo.
  2. For more efficiency, check out these keywords that are blocked not only on Weibo but also on Baidu and Google.
  3. Get some inspiration by checking out copies of thousands of Sina Weibo posts that have been deleted.

In other Weibo news, weibo: 天安门 was briefly unblocked on May 21 but has otherwise been fully blocked before and after. weibo: 郭金龙 was unblocked during the second half of May and has stayed that way since.

New Blocked Keywords

China Digital Times discovered many new blocked keywords. Some of them have been unblocked since, and some are blocked not just on Weibo. Here's an updated overview:

BaiduGoogleWeibo
baidu: 巨无霸google: 巨无霸weibo: 巨无霸
baidu: 揭秘google: 揭秘weibo: 揭秘
baidu: 八一广场google: 八一广场weibo: 八一广场
baidu: 色猫google: 色猫weibo: 色猫
baidu: 腌肉google: 腌肉weibo: 腌肉
baidu: 大腿肉google: 大腿肉weibo: 大腿肉
baidu: 剔肉埋骨google: 剔肉埋骨weibo: 剔肉埋骨
baidu: 尸骨google: 尸骨weibo: 尸骨
baidu: 吃受害者google: 吃受害者weibo: 吃受害者
baidu: 吃少年google: 吃少年weibo: 吃少年
baidu: 韩耀google: 韩耀weibo: 韩耀
baidu: 连环失踪案google: 连环失踪案weibo: 连环失踪案
baidu: 雷锋google: 雷锋weibo: 雷锋
baidu: 乌尔google: 乌尔weibo: 乌尔
baidu: 人权google: 人权weibo: 人权
baidu: ren权google: ren权weibo: ren权
baidu: renquangoogle: renquanweibo: renquan
baidu: 晋宁google: 晋宁weibo: 晋宁
baidu: 食人魔google: 食人魔weibo: 食人魔
baidu: 杀人狂google: 杀人狂weibo: 杀人狂
baidu: 吃人google: 吃人weibo: 吃人
baidu: 张永明google: 张永明weibo: 张永明
baidu: 云南失踪google: 云南失踪weibo: 云南失踪
baidu: 肢解尸体google: 肢解尸体weibo: 肢解尸体
baidu: 云南杀google: 云南杀weibo: 云南杀
baidu: 冤案google: 冤案weibo: 冤案
baidu: 猥亵google: 猥亵weibo: 猥亵
baidu: BJ日报google: BJ日报weibo: BJ日报
baidu: 炫富女google: 炫富女weibo: 炫富女
baidu: 马力宏google: 马力宏weibo: 马力宏
baidu: 马驰google: 马驰weibo: 马驰
baidu: 法拉利google: 法拉利weibo: 法拉利
baidu: 新加坡google: 新加坡weibo: 新加坡
baidu: 刘明泽google: 刘明泽weibo: 刘明泽
baidu: 周永google: 周永weibo: 周永
baidu: zy康google: zy康weibo: zy康
baidu: z永Kgoogle: z永Kweibo: z永K
baidu: 朝阳医院google: 朝阳医院weibo: 朝阳医院
baidu: 自行离开google: 自行离开weibo: 自行离开
baidu: 骆家辉google: 骆家辉weibo: 骆家辉
baidu: 医院google: 医院weibo: 医院
baidu: 美大使google: 美大使weibo: 美大使
baidu: 光chenggoogle: 光chengweibo: 光cheng
baidu: guang诚google: guang诚weibo: guang诚
baidu: 政治庇护google: 政治庇护weibo: 政治庇护
baidu: 滕彪google: 滕彪weibo: 滕彪

No Boxer Rebellion on Wikipedia

http://www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boxer_Rebellion was apparently blocked throughout May but is now available again. en.wikipedia: Huang_Qi was unblocked during May. Chinese users can however access any of the many blocked Wikipedia articles by using the encrypted websites: https://zh.wikipedia.org and https://en.wikipedia.org remain unblocked.

Foreign Websites Continue To Get Faster

Loading chart..

Showing average download speed of Alexa Top 500 websites not hosted in China, per month. Source.   

Loading chart..

Showing Alexa Top 500 websites blocked 50% or more of the time, per month. Source.

Other Detected Changes

http://rapidshare.com was unblocked but is extremely slow. http://archive.org was unblocked and has stayed unblocked. http://www.hulu.com was briefly available on May 13 but has been blocked again since. http://www.weather.gov was unblocked and has stayed that way. 

News on GreatFire.org

May was an exciting month for us on GreatFire.org. We completed the Chinese version of our website, started reaching out on Sina Weibo and Google Plus, introduced a much easier way of looking up and comparing keywords (on Baidu, Google and Sina Weibo) and imported thousands of sensitive keywords from BlockedOnWeibo and China Digital Times. Stay tuned for more. If you want to collaborate with us please email greatfire@greatfire.org.

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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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Comments

Latest! New Google blocked keyword function back up, working again. Google changed the URL of the JS file. How long before it's blocked again?

The previous URL was http://www.google.com.hk/xjs/_/js/s/s,st,anim,bbd,c,sb_cn,hv,wta,cr,cdos... and is still blocked (see https://en.greatfire.org/https/bit.ly/KhDUnK).

The new javascript file URL is http://www.google.com.hk/sbox/s/s,st,anim,bbd,c,sb_cn,hv,wta,cr,cdos,sk,... and is not blocked (yet?). See https://en.greatfire.org/www.google.com.hk/sbox/s/s%2Cst%2Canim%2Cbbd%2C... for an updated status.

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