We Had Our Arguments, But We Will Miss You Wikipedia

On June 12, 2015, Wikimedia announced that they would start the process of fully encrypting Wikipedia for users everywhere in the world. They expect that the process will be completed before the end of this month. Coincidentally, on May 19, 2015 both the encrypted and unencrypted Chinese-language versions of Wikipedia were blocked in China, ending what has been a complicated censorship situation for the world's most important online resource.

There was a time that when blocking access to one of the world's top ten most visited sites would raise alarm bells and draw scorns of criticism. But with the blocking of Wikipedia, that attention seems to have dissipated. While it is true that Wikipedia has been blocked and unblocked before, it is unlikely that the Chinese language site will be unblocked again. Furthermore, given the current environment in China, it is likely that all language versions of Wikipedia sites will soon be blocked in China.

There is a history to this story and other foreign internet properties that are looking to the China market should take note.

Foreign companies that "re-entered" the China market in the early 90s, after the June, 1989 Tiananmen incident had slipped from the headlines, often faced criticism for their decision to return so soon. But these companies were taking a long-term view on China and could see that the market for their goods and services and the lure of affordable production costs was too great to keep them away.

In response to the criticism, most companies repeated the same boilerplate mantras - "Engagement with China will be more effective than isolationism." "Over time, China will change and will gradually open up." "We have to enter the China market on China's terms."

It's been 26 years since the night of June 4 and while there has been much positive change for the average Chinese citizen, many discussions are still taboo. What's more, we have not seen an "opening up" when it comes to freedom of access to information. The numbers of websites that are being blocked continues to increase. Even websites that we have long felt were too important to block have been rendered inaccessible from China. Domestic censorship controls have silenced Chinese-language discussions about "sensitive" topics. The authorities have even extended these measures beyond China's borders.

Since May, 2014, when Google was outright blocked, we have seen an unprecedented ramping up of internet controls in China. Web and mobile properties like Line, KaoKao Talk, Flickr and Microsoft One Drive have joined Facebook, Twitter and YouTube on the blocked list. Large scale man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks have been launched on Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and Apple, putting sensitive user information at risk. There has been an intense crackdown on VPNs (virtual private networks) used to circumvent the great firewall, making it increasingly difficult even for companies to access the most basic and essential online services. The Chinese authorities have even developed and deployed a cyber weapon that can bring down websites outside of China, even if their citizens are unable to access them in the first place.

Wikipedia is just the latest nail in the internet freedom coffin and it certainly will not be the last. Wikipedia thought that by engaging with China, the authorities would gradually open up. They thought that by allowing the Chinese authorities to censor as much information as they wanted, that eventually they would relinquish control. They thought that for those in China, having access to some Wikipedia pages was better than having access to none.

But what actually happened was that the authorities effectively neutered Wikipedia, made it uninteresting to the average netizen with onerous censorship controls. Our tests show that of the 1200 Chinese language Wikipedia pages we monitor, the authorities have blocked access to 228 of them. Furthermore, Baidu's Baike actually has more content that the censored Chinese Wikipedia. Censorship destroyed what was unique about the Wikipedia offering. And now the site is blocked and it's like if a tree fell in the forest and there was nobody there to hear it.

While we have been critical of the organization's approach to China in the past, we stand with them in mourning the end of Wikipedia in China, as do many in academia who use the encyclopedia on a daily basis and rely on it for their studies.

The Chinese strategy on information control is working and is effective. But we hope that foreign firms will take notice of this episode (including you, LinkedIn) and plan their market strategy accordingly. In 2013, we felt that sites like Wikipedia and Google were too important to block. While this may have been true before Xi Jinping took power, this is no longer the case. We have been proven very wrong by the authorities. They have shown that they will not hesitate to block any website, under any conditions. As Jimmy Wales said in 2004 after Wikipedia was blocked for the first time in China:

It's a huge embarrassment for the censors if they block Wikipedia, because we are none of the things that they claim to want to censor. Censoring Wikipedia is an admission that it is unbiased factual information itself that frightens you. We are not political propaganda, we are not online gambling, we are not porn. We are an encyclopedia.

If the censors were ever embarrassed, they certainly are no longer. With the support of Xi Jinping, they are emboldened. And we expect to see the authorities take further steps to crack down on any website, mobile app or circumvention tool that allows Chinese citizens to freely access information. Rest in peace, Wikipedia. While we may have had our issues while you were around, we are going to miss you now that you are gone.

----

The GreatFire website provides tests to check the current availability of a website within China. The test links below show tests for Wikipedia in Chinese and English, for the encrypted and unencrypted sites.

https://en.greatfire.org/zh.wikipedia.org
https://en.greatfire.org/https/zh.wikipedia.org
https://en.greatfire.org/www.wikipedia.org
https://en.greatfire.org/https/www.wikipedia.org

 

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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.

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.

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