Exploring The Real Lies Behind The GlobalWebIndex And Lightspeed Research

Forget Twitter and Facebook – exploring the real lies behind the GlobalWebIndex and Lightspeed Research numbers

You may have noticed we made a lot of noise about a recent GlobalWebIndex study which claimed, among other things, that despite heavy online censorship, Chinese netizens are actually very active on blocked foreign social media web sites including Facebook, Twitter and Google+.

In response to our protests and the protests of journalists who could see that the numbers did not add up, GlobalWebIndex published a blog post on their web site and shared some of the information from the report. They also shared their rationale as to why, despite these web sites being blocked, there was so much activity from China:

However, it only takes a little bit of desk research to discover that what is called the “Great Firewall” is actually much more porous than the Chinese government would like to admit. On closer inspection, Chinese users are using VPNs (Virtual Private Networks), VCN (Virtual Cloud Networks) or connections at work that may be routed internationally. Crucially, this means that users won’t be picked up in analytics and will not register as being in a Chinese location at all!

For us this was probably the most upsetting claim. We agree that Chinese netizens have access to VPNs at home or through their places of work and that certainly there are Chinese who are active on these social media platforms. But we hardly think it goes to the extent that GlobalWebIndex and their survey partner Lightspeed Research claim.

In reality, “it takes a little bit of desk research to discover” that China has created a sophisticated online censorship mechanism. Chinese netizens are prevented from accessing foreign web sites that are deemed to contain sensitive information and are also prevented from posting and searching for “sensitive” information on domestic social media web sites. Given China’s rise in influence around the world and the huge number of Chinese who have access to the internet, we felt that it was necessary that somebody bring transparency to online censorship in China. It is our hope those living in and beyond China will come to recognize that the internet is not free and open in China. It is highly controlled and manipulated and this lack of freedom of expression and freedom to find information, may one day lead to conflicts based on misunderstandings. We’ve seen recently how easy it is for authorities in China to encourage nationalistic fervor (see the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands protests) and how easy it is to turn this off.

We want to bring China’s internet censorship campaign to the awareness of a global audience in the hope that they can help bring about a change in how China treats access to information. The GlobalWebIndex and Lightspeed Research report has successfully led many people to believe that the Great Firewall of China is weak and that Chinese can circumvent the firewall whenever they please.

VPNs and other forms of circumvention are beyond the means (technical or monetary) of the vast majority of netizens anywhere in the world. While there are free VPN solutions, in order to use them, most people would need a higher than average understanding of their computers. If they don’t have this knowledge, they can purchase access to a reliable VPN service with a user-friendly interface for around USD 80/year – not an insignificant amount in this country – but also a manageable number for many urban white collar workers.

If it was true that the internet was free and open to the numbers of Chinese netizens that GlobalWebIndex and Lightspeed Research claim, then we would likely see a lot of different things on the internet, regardless of whether or not you could read Chinese. Charlie Custer has done a great job of exploring some of this issues but the one issue we’d point out is that we’d see huge levels of Chinese language activity, especially around recent issues like the Diaoyu/Senkaku island dispute. The evidence is just not there to show this.

Social network usage in China, according to GlobalWebIndex.

However, the real smoking gun with regards to the reliability of the GlobalWebIndex and Lightspeed Research report comes when we look at a web site that is not blocked in China – LinkedIn.

GlobalWebIndex and Lightspeed Research claim that LinkedIn has 16.23 million monthly active users in China, regardless of whether or not they are using a VPN or other circumvention tool to access a site that has only ever been blocked for one 24 hour period in China in 2011 and for a site that is largely mainly used by current job seekers and sales people (LinkedIn would refute this claim).

Regardless of whatever intent people have for using LinkedIn, in China, GlobalWebIndex and Lightspeed Research claim that each month more than 16 million Chinese are active on this web site. Who knows what the number would be if inactive users were included (i.e. those who are not in sales nor currently looking for a job).

For argument’s sake, let’s assume that all 16.23 million LinkedIn users in China are active users. This number is quite different from numbers that LinkedIn and the company’s competitors have publicly released.

LinkedIn itself claims 175 million members worldwide. This would mean that at least 9% of all accounts on LinkedIn are originating from China. Linkedin claim that 108 million members are from outside of the US and of those members, 15 million can be found in India and 10 million in the UK. Numerous sources (see below) have put the number of registered users of LinkedIn in China at between 1-2 million people. It is no secret that the company is exploring establishing operations in China and has been for some time. They believe that they need an active China audience in order for the site to be truly global and to show shareholders that there is continued growth of the platform. At 16.23 million users, the Chinese LinkedIn population would already be larger than India’s where knowledge of English is widespread. LinkedIn itself, on its own backend advertising platform, show that there are currently 2.6 million users in China and 17 million in India (see below). Another 1 million users can be found in Taiwan and Hong Kong which would bring the current Greater China LinkedIn population to 3.6 million users.

GlobalWebIndex refuted similar statistics we gathered from Facebook’s backend advertising platform which shows less than 1 million users in China as opposed to the 63 million monthly active users that the Lightspeed Research produced. They claimed that because Chinese netizens were using VPNs to access Facebook, their location would likely show up outside of China. More precisely, more than 62 million Chinese were likely circumventing the Great Firewall.

The LinkedIn numbers are more difficult to explain away. Presumably, as more people use LinkedIn as their de facto online resume, you are unlikely to lie on your resume about where you are located in the world. Many overseas Chinese students might be using LinkedIn and have changed their location to be their place of study.  Alexa shows that 0.9% of visitors to LinkedIn are from China. Yes, Chinese netizens presumably could be using a VPN to access LinkedIn even though it is not necessary for them to do so.

There is one other possible explanation and for want of spending the night spinning dancing around the outside of the ring, that other possible explanation is that the GlobalWebIndex and Lightspeed Research are completely falsified. We can’t figure it out. Did they just increase the numbers by a factor of X? Did they poll people in Hong Kong thinking that this would be an adequate sample size? Did they poll only Chinese who were using VPNs? Did they just randomly decide what the numbers should be? What would they have to gain? Some free publicity for one. Perhaps the sales team needed something exciting to sell to foreign companies about the Chinese internet although I pity any company using this data to make business decisions. Whatever the case may be, we’d love to hear an explanation of this issue. What we’d like more is a public apology letting us know that you just got it completely wrong. And that the likes of eMarketer, The Huffington Post, Financial Times, Bloomberg and a bevy of other lazy journalists did, too. Your public denial, combined with the power of the press, might help make the world aware again that their netizen brethren in China are still hidden behind this Great Firewall.

We’re sorry we can’t put our real names to this story. We are operating in China and we do fear that we’ll get discovered before we are able to bring transparency to online censorship in this country, but if you remain adamant about your numbers and you want to have a word with us, please do reach out to greatfire at greatfire dot org and we’d be happy to learn more about your research in an email exchange or on a Skype call.

External Sources On Number Of LinkedIn Users In China

From LinkedIn Itself

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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.

Tue, May 23, 2017

Is China establishing cyber sovereignty in the United States?

Last week Twitter came under attack from a DDoS attack orchestrated by the Chinese authorities. While such attacks are not uncommon for websites like Twitter, this one proved unusual. While the Chinese authorities use the Great Firewall to block harmful content from reaching its citizens, it now uses DDoS attacks to take down content that appears on websites beyond its borders. For the Chinese authorities, it is not simply good enough to “protect” the interests of Chinese citizens at home - in their view of cyber sovereignty, any content that might harm China’s interests must be removed, regardless of where the website is located.

And so last week the Chinese authorities determined that Twitter was the target. In particular, the authorities targeted the Twitter account for Guo Wengui (https://twitter.com/KwokMiles), the rebel billionaire who is slowly leaking information about corrupt Chinese government officials via his Twitter account and through his YouTube videos. Guo appeared to ramp up his whistle-blowing efforts last week and the Chinese authorities, in turn, ramped up theirs.

via https://twitter.com/KwokMiles/status/863689935798374401

Mon, Dec 12, 2016

China is the obstacle to Google’s plan to end internet censorship

It’s been three years since Eric Schmidt proclaimed that Google would chart a course to ending online censorship within ten years. Now is a great time to check on Google’s progress, reassess the landscape, benchmark Google’s efforts against others who share the same goal, postulate on the China strategy and offer suggestions on how they might effectively move forward.

flowers on google china plaque

Flowers left outside Google China’s headquarters after its announcement it might leave the country in 2010. Photo: Wikicommons.

What has Google accomplished since November 2013?

The first thing they have accomplished is an entire rebranding of both Google (now Alphabet) and Google Ideas (now Jigsaw). Throughout this blog post, reference is made to both new and old company names.

Google has started to develop two main tools which they believe can help in the fight against censorship. Jigsaw’s DDoS protection service, Project Shield, is effectively preventing censorship-inspired DDoS attacks and recently helped to repel an attack on Brian Krebs’ blog. The service is similar to other anti-DDoS services developed by internet freedom champions and for-profit services like Cloudflare.

Thu, Nov 24, 2016

Facebook: Please, not like this

Facebook is considering launching a censorship tool that would enable the world’s biggest social network to “enter” the China market. Sadly, nobody will be surprised by anything that Mark Zuckerberg decides to do in order to enter the China market. With such low expectations, Facebook is poised to usurp Apple as China’s favorite foreign intelligence gathering partner. If the company launches in China using this strategy they will also successfully erase any bargaining power that other media organizations may hold with the Chinese authorities.

Tue, Jul 05, 2016

GreatFire.org 现在开始测试VPN在中国的速度和稳定性

在中国有一个普遍观念,如果你有一个可以使用的VPN,那么你应该保持沉默。就信息自由而言,这种观念的问题在于获取知识竟成了一种秘密。今天,我们推出一个项目,希望能够摧毁这种模型。

我们最新的网站,翻墙中心,目的在于实时提供那些能够在中国使用的翻墙方案的信息和数据。在2011年以来我们就已经开始收集在中国被屏蔽的网站,现在我们也将增加那些可用的VPN和其他翻墙工具。

我们发布翻墙中心主要有四个目的。

我们的首要目标是助长使用翻墙工具的国人的数量。通过分享我们这些工具的信息和数据,我们希望对更广泛的受众展示那些工具时可以使用的。

我们的第二个目标是通过带来工具性能的透明化来提升中国用户的翻墙体验。我们将会测试工具的速度(流行网站的加载速度)和稳定性(流行网站加载成功的程度)。

我们开发速度测试的目的是要真实反映用户的体验。当用户在网站测速时,浏览器在后台会从10个世界上最流行的网站上下载一些资源文件。根据Alexa排名,这些网站分别是Google, Facebook, YouTube, Baidu, Amazon, Yahoo, Wikipedia, QQ, Twitter and Microsoft Live。速度的结果是简单的计算下载文件文件的大小和下载所需的时间。我们同样也会验证下载的文件是否完整。如果文件的内容是错误的或者在40秒内无法完成下载,我们会标记为失败。这个数据被我们用来生成另一个重要指标-稳定性。

其他的速度测试工具仅仅是通过发送数据到它们自己的服务器来测量上传和下载的速度。这种数据无法反应用户的体验,因为正常的浏览器通常会频繁的发送一系列的请求(而不是上传或下载一个大文件)到许多的服务器,而不止是一个。

我们的第二个指标 - 稳定性 - 是其他的服务通常不会测试的。一个健康的互联网连接应该达到100%的稳定性,除非有人在测试中把网线拔了。但是在中国使用翻墙工具却不是这样。任何时候连接都有可能变得不稳定或十分缓慢。根据请求的大小,最终的地点和代理的方式,一些请求有可能会失败。比较服务的稳定性要比比较速度更加重要。

你可以测试任意的翻墙工具,列表之外的也可以。中国的VPN用户也可以测试他们的工具,测试结果也会添加到数据库中。这些数据都将会对所有人开放。实时的在中国测试是非常重要的,因为VPN随时都可能被封锁或解封。我们欢迎任何的关于测试过程的反馈。有技术能力的用户也可以通过审查我们的javascript代码来获悉我们的测试是如何工作的。

我们郑重的邀请翻墙工具的开发者们向我们提供测试过程的反馈。我们的第三个目标是帮助这些开发人员改进他们的产品,让更多的选择适用于中国的顾客。此外,越多的工具可以工作,就意味着中国当局对翻墙的打击就会越难。

中国的用户都知道,在过去的18个月中当局加紧了对翻墙工具的攻击。而翻墙中心将会吹响反击的号角。反其道而行之,让这不再成为秘密。我们要鼓励人们分享翻墙工具可以工作的信息。

我们的第四个目标就是要为GreatFire.org创造收益。目前GreatFire仍然依靠世界各地的热心人士和组织的捐款。我们希望减少对这些机构的依赖,并探寻GreatFire.org自给自足的道路。用户只需到翻墙中心就能购买任意一款我们目前在测试的付费工具。GreatFire将作为这些工具在中国的经销商,因此VPN供应商会给予我们每个零售的一部分。用户也不必在中国购买这些翻墙服务。

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