Collateral Freedom FAQ

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.

We have spent the latter part of 2013 implementing collateral freedom in China and explaining the concept to those that are interested. Here are answers to some of the most common questions surrounding our plan to end online censorship in China.

 

1. You are just creating mirror web sites and they will get blocked.

We are creating more than mirror web sites. What we are doing is leveraging the global cloud infrastructure by creating ‘unblockable’ mirrors via unblockable cloud services. This approach would not have been possible five years ago because Amazon and other companies offering cloud hosting did not have the critical mass of clients necessary. A critical mass is needed because China will clearly see that blocking all access to Amazon AWS, for example, would have devastating economic consequences inside of China. Five years ago, not that many people were using cloud hosting so the government could afford to block the Amazon domain - today, that is possible, but highly unlikely.

Amazon AWS clients in China include Qihu 360, Xiaomi, FunPlus Game, Mobotap, TCL, Hisense, Tiens, Kingsoft and Light in the Box.

 

2. Some major companies use Amazon to host their websites but they are blocked in China. How is your approach different?

That is because the urls for those companies are DNS poisoned. One of the pitfalls of our approach is that we will have to use the s3.amazonaws.com domain name to host all unblockable mirror web sites, like https://s3.amazonaws.com/cn.reuters/index.html. But the positives far outweigh the negatives - having an unblockable url means more than having an easy to remember but blocked website. Plus, organisations can use their social media channels to promote their new domain. While the weibos may get deleted or censored, once the message is shared, the url will also be shared and has the potential to reach a much larger audience. We have also started a directory of mirror websites that we are hosting in China on Github - the link to this directory is also unblockable. If a company wants to promote their new unblockable url, they could also purchase advertising sharing their new url that could run on Chinese language web sites.

 

3. China can selectively block urls, regardless of whether or not they are encrypted.

This is not true. The only way for China to block a url from an encrypted domain is to block the entire domain.

 

4. Companies won’t create unblockable websites in China because they have economic interests to protect.

That is something that we cannot control. We don’t know what the end will be for some of these stories (as is the case for Bloomberg). But what we can say is that advertising can be served on our unblockable mirrors, which means that ad dollars can be generated, which will certainly be of economic interest to some media organisations. Plus, how long are media organisations going to wait until they get access to China - and by that time, will it be worth it? We hope that it is not the ten year time period that Eric Schmidt believes in.

 

5. China will ask Amazon and others to remove your mirrors.

Amazon, Apple, GitHub and Microsoft are US companies that need to consider their reputations worldwide. The Chinese authorities will likely try to pressure them into censoring content on their behalf - it’s up to all of us to convince them that they should not. So far, Amazon has not taken down our mirror websites, GitHub has not taken down our content hosted there and Microsoft has not closed down our Azure servers - but Apple did remove our FreeWeibo app from the China App Store. The more important the content provider is, the less likely we believe it is that any of these tech companies will censor them. Would Microsoft dare to censor the New York Times?

 

6. China will just block Amazon, The App Store, GitHub, etc. if you take this approach.

In early 2013, GitHub was blocked in China, after it had been used to gather support for a petition to ban contributors to the Great Firewall from traveling to the US. It’s clear that the authorities had a reason to block GitHub - but after only a couple of days, they unblocked it again. Why? There was an online protest against the blocking, including voices of influential people, and GitHub is an important tool for software developers in China. The content that the authorities disapproved of has not gone away - if anything, it has grown. But this has proved that the authorities are unable to block that content.

Similarly, the authorities have tried to block our mirror websites on S3 - but they have given up. Since we are using all of these platforms to implement collateral freedom - Amazon, GitHub, the App Store and Microsoft - they also know that to effectively stop us they have to block all of them. So far, even the cost of blocking GitHub was considered too high. Nothing is certain, but this is a strong indicator that our approach can be sustained.

 

7. Is it illegal for companies like Amazon and Google to host these unblockable mirror sites?

It is not against Chinese law to host such websites. There have been no court orders or legal edicts that have decreed websites such as Facebook, Twitter and the New York Times to be illegal. They are secretly blocked without any jurisdictional overview. The Chinese government could publicly declare those websites to be illegal and obtain court orders to support their claim. Then they can send those court orders to Google to ask them to restrict local access to specified websites, including our mirrors. Chinese law specifies that adult websites are not permitted; we fully respect that. However, there is no law prohibiting the use of Facebook or Wikipedia. Freedom of speech is written into the Chinese constitution. By providing access to such websites, we are upholding Chinese laws, not violating them.

 

Do you have other questions? Feel free to email Charlie Smith and we will post your questions and our answers here.

 

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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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