Hackers, bloggers and professors team up to tap into blocked microblog content

The stated-sponsered newspaper Global Times published an article about Weibo censorship on July 28th 2013 both in print and electronicallly. The article was removed from the website two days later.  The article is reproduced below.

Update on Aug 12: According to The Diplomat,  "A source close to the matter inside the Global Times tells The Diplomat, "After Kaifu Lee tweeted it on Weibo, it got too much attention and got on the authorities' radar." The same source also confirms that the propaganda department did play a role in taking it down." 

We at GreatFire.org also contacted the Global Times in early August regarding the deletion of the article, but all we got was "[Auto Reply] Your message has been received" and nothing more.

Hackers, bloggers and professors team up to tap into blocked microblog content

Global Times | 2013-7-28 19:13:01
By Xuyang Jingjing

With over 500 million registered users and over 46 million daily active users, Sina Weibo is the largest and most influential social media platform in China. It has also become known as a fostering ground for discussions with a more liberal slant.

But what is not allowed to be discussed on Weibo perhaps says just as much as what can be. There are a number of projects that aim to uncover content blocked on Weibo. Most of the people behind such efforts are China watchers based overseas or foreigners living in China. While they may have different approaches and backgrounds, their efforts are successful in bringing this vanished content back to light.

One such project, Freeweibo.com, won the 2013 Bobs, or Best of the Blogs awards, for best innovation in June. The Bobs awards, started by Deutsche Welle in 2004, are given out in 34 categories in 14 languages, and aim to honor the open exchange of ideas of free expression.

Hu Yong, a professor at Peking University and a new media observer, served as a juror at the awards. He commented that Freeweibo preserves digital memories and makes disappeared content visible again, according to the official website of the Bobs.

 

Alternative Weibo universe

Launched on October 10, 2012, Freeweibo retrieves data automatically from Weibo to provide "uncensored and anonymous Sina Weibo searches."

"We ignore relevant laws, legislation and policy," the welcome message on the website reads, a response to the expression Weibo and Chinese search engines use to explain why searches for certain words come back empty.

The website, in both English and Chinese, displays posts that are blocked or deleted on Sina Weibo. When searching for keywords, Freeweibo breaks search results down to "blocked by Sina Weibo" and "official search results," which allows users to see which search results are missing from the official Weibo.  

Freeweibo has around 10,000 unique visitors per day, with most coming from China, including Taiwan, based on the language setting, according to Percy Alpha, the pseudonym used by one of the founders.

A week after the website went live, it was blocked on the mainland. But the creators of the website have also been trying to provide mirror sites that are accessible without a VPN.

From the list of blocked keywords provided on the website, it is also clear when some words become sensitive and when such scrutiny is lifted.

For instance, the name of Bo Xilai, former Party chief of Chongqing who was recently prosecuted on corruption charges, was banned from searches until July 25, the day the news of his prosecution was announced.

 

Meet the founders

The same team also founded Greatfire.org back in 2011, a website that enables real-time testing of what is being blocked by the Great Firewall of China (GFW). URLs being tested are added by users or are imported from other similar projects. At the moment, the website monitors over 10,000 websites regularly to see if they are blocked and then analyzes precise methods of online monitoring such as connection resets, DNS poisonings and so on, explained Percy Alpha.

The website also provides an up-to-date database of URLs and keywords that are blocked.

Greatfire is also blocked in the mainland. Test data collected by the website clearly showed a 6-month gap between when its Chinese version was blocked and then the English.

The founders of the two websites have remained anonymous but one of the three is an American in China who goes by the alias Martin Johnson.

Percy Alpha would only say in an e-mail interview that he lived in China for a long time and is now based in the US. He said they are collaborating with other organizations and developers, though he wouldn't disclose the nature of the organizations they are working with or give further details about their collaboration.

According to their own introduction on Greatfire, they are self-financed but are exploring ways to "make the website a financially sustaining entity."

Percy Alpha said that what pushed him over the edge and made him start the project was the Google China dispute in 2010. Google refused to comply with China's regulations to filter search terms and later moved its Google China servers to Hong Kong.

Not long after that, search for individual characters, mostly those contained in Chinese leaders' names, were also blocked even when they are frequently used in other phrases and expressions.

"Chinese people in general know very little about censorship," Percy Alpha told the Global Times. He said that when he talked to Chinese people about the Google withdrawal from the mainland and searches being blocked, he found that most didn't seem to care and repeated the official line that censorship is just and necessary.

China's regulation on Internet information lists nine types of banned content, most of which concerns national security, state unity, rumors, pornography and violence. But in practice it isn't always clear where the line is and in the event of a breaking incident, certain words or phrases that are otherwise normal might become sensitive for a period of time.

Data provided by Greatfire has been used by other researchers to get to grips with Internet restrictions. In May, for instance, two professors from Northwestern University in the US used its data to study how the GFW affects users' online behavior.

Percy Alpha says the team is also developing easy tools that allow people to access free Internet and to make information available in China.

Zhang Zhi'an, an associate professor in new media at Sun Yat-sen University, said plenty of Chinese scholars also observe and study Weibo regulation. He acknowledged it might be easier for researchers overseas as they are not restricted by the GFW and take less risks when doing so.

"I don't know about their motives, but by presenting this blocked information, they allow more people to know about Internet regulation in China and provide data for other scholars who might be interested in studying China's Internet monitoring," he said.

 

Academic support

Their team isn't the first or the only one watching the censors and collecting data about blocked content. Many individual or academic efforts are also being made to take a closer look at how China's Internet and social media operate. Oftentimes, such projects inspire each other and even use each other's data.

For example, Freeweibo was inspired by and uses data from WeiboScope, a data collection and visualization system developed by the Journalism and Media Studies Center of the University of Hong Kong in 2011.

WeiboScope uses API tools provided by Weibo to retrieve posts from 350,000 users at set time intervals to show how posts are diffused and censored. People can also search for the most reposted microblogs with images within the past 24 hours or search for specific keywords in several languages. This allows people to get a real-time idea of trending topics on Weibo, without online monitoring.

With this tool, researchers at the school are able to assess online monitoring on Weibo and the impact of policies such as the real-name registration policy enacted last year that requires microbloggers  to register with their real identity.

The web page for WeiboScope is also not accessible in the mainland.

Another project centered in academia is China Digital Times, a bilingual news website that brings "uncensored news and online voices from China to the world." It is supported by the Counter-Power Lab at the School of Information, University of California, Berkeley. Both the Chinese and English websites are blocked.

Since 2011, it started a research project that aims to construct a database of sensitive Weibo search keywords. It's an open source project where Web users could pitch in.

Xiao Qiang, the founder and editor-in-chief of China Digital Times, is an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley. He was a theoretical physicist by training and later became a human rights activist.

 

Other efforts

One of the few projects that remains accessible in the mainland is a Tumblr page called Blocked on Weibo, which documents words blocked on Sina Weibo and also offers contexts and explanations for the bans. The creator of the blog is Jason Q. Ng, a 2013 Google Policy Fellow at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab.

Ng uses a different approach. He developed an automated process to check individual words to see whether they are blocked or not. He tested 700,000 Chinese Wikipedia titles in early 2012. The script performed searches on Weibo for three months and recorded whether they were censored. He collected over 150 terms and explained why they were sensitive in a book also entitled Blocked on Weibo which will be published next month.

Ng, a US citizen and a graduate student in East Asian Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, said he didn't have a background in computer science prior to this project.

He said he doesn't have an agenda with Blocked on Weibo, and that it's a "fun little challenge" for him as "coding is akin to solving a puzzle, solving little pieces at a time."

In his past career as a book editor, Ng worked on a book about China Central Television and developed an interest for how media works in China, he explained.

Ng wrote on his blog that he hopes his site "proves the resourcefulness and resiliency of Chinese netizens as well as the sense of responsibility that Chinese leaders (in the government and in private organizations) have for shepherding the country forward. You could even claim that the CCP [CPC] cares too much for its citizens."

Ng explained he meant no sarcasm by this. "Even though I don't agree with such a sentiment, I think it is part of a argument that needs to be legitimately considered in order for those outside China to begin understanding why such restrictions are in place in China," he said.  

Posted in: Frontpage In-Depth

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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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