Collateral Freedom and the not-so-Great Firewall

In November, 2013, we released a difficult-to-block mirror of a blocked news website. Since that time, we have continued to pursue our strategy to make it difficult for the Chinese authorities to block websites and mobile applications. To that end, we have a series of exciting new announcements to make about the development of collateral freedom and the promise of internet freedom in China.

In summary:

  • On February 26, we released an Android app that uses collateral freedom so that anybody in China (or in any country that practices online censorship) can access any website regardless of whether or not it is blocked.

  • We have made our approach open source. Reporters Without Borders announced today that they have used our strategy to unblock a further nine websites.

  • We’ve unblocked ten websites and released four difficult-to-block apps using collateral freedom since November, 2013.

As has been widely reported, VPNs have been severely disrupted in China. We have a different approach to circumvention. We host content with the world’s leading content delivery networks (CDNs). For the censors to block our websites and apps, they would have to block all websites and apps being served by CDNs (content delivery networks). The entire blocking of all CDNs would cause a severe disruption of internet services for everybody in China as CDNs account for over 50% of all global web traffic. The economic damage caused by such a disruption would be major. We believe that the Chinese authorities would not dare block all websites and apps being served by CDNs because they understand the economic implications of this action.

So far at least, this belief has proven correct. The authorities have tried to stop our services by disrupting CDNs, but, apart from one, have stopped short of outright blocking them. Recognizing that the authorities have been hesitant to crackdown on our method of circumvention, we have accelerated our expansion of the development of collateral freedom, in three key areas.

FreeBrowser Android Application


On February 26, we released an Android app called FreeBrowser  that allows Chinese citizens to access any website they choose. The app is free to install, and thus available to everyone who has a smartphone that runs the Android operating system - in China, this means at least 270 million people. All content that the authorities block is accessible via the app. This includes sites that share information about news, human rights, democracy, religion, Tibet - all subjects that are heavily censored in China.

Instead of creating Android apps for individual properties, the Android browser app allows Chinese netizens to visit any website. The app is free and users need not have any technical know-how to operate the app (apart from knowing how to download an app and use a standard mobile browser). Already, over 5000 Chinese are using the app on a daily basis.



While the app was developed with China in mind, it works equally well in other countries that have their own great (or not-so-great) firewalls. Many schools also use firewalls to prevent students from accessing social media websites during school hours - this app will also work equally well in circumventing these measures.

We took great inspiration from OpenDoor when developing this app. OpenDoor’s iOS app was working well in China. However, when the authorities were unable to disrupt the app, they simply picked up the phone, called Apple, and asked them to remove the app from the China app store. Apple acquiesced and an open door to internet freedom was shut.

Open Source Collateral Freedom

RSF CF.png

Part of our strategy in developing collateral freedom was to make our approach “open source” so that others could use the same technique to unblock their websites and mobile applications. Through our Github page, we have shared the source code for our projects. On occasion, we come across websites inspired by collateral freedom, but on March 12, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) unblocked nine websites in different markets around the world, using our open source code, to mark World Day Against Cyber-Censorship. We are now proud to see that collateral freedom is being used not only in China but also in countries like Russia, Iran, Vietnam, Cuba and Saudi Arabia. RWB notes:

“These “enemies of the internet” censor the internet and deprive their inhabitants of online access to independently-reported news and information.”

We each implementation of collateral freedom, we are moving one step closer to tearing down great firewalls everywhere.

Partner Websites


Since unblocking Reuters Chinese we have unblocked ten websites. A list of all of the websites we have unblocked can be found on our Github and Bitbucket pages - which are also not blocked in China. Most recently, we unblocked the website for Deutsche Welle (DW), Germany’s international broadcaster. The DW website has been blocked in China since 2008. The DW site is now accessible in China without the use of any circumvention tools.

DW's Managing Director of Distribution, Marketing and Technology Guido Baumhauer had this to say about our partnership with DW:

"Success in circumventing censorship can't just be measured by statistics. The availability of freely accessible information and the feeling that one can freely inform oneself alone constitutes an important step."

Call to Action

What can you do to help advance internet freedom?

Unblocked Sites

A list of all unblocked sites and apps appears below. All of these websites are accessible in China and in other countries that have great firewalls:

Google - in late May, 2014 the Chinese authorities blocked Google ahead of the June 4th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. We were the first organization to report on the block and on June 2nd, we launched our difficult-to-block Google website.

BBC Chinese - the website has been blocked since inception over 10 years ago and itself was recently disrupted in China

Boxun - Boxun is an influential Chinese language news source that often breaks important news. They keep abreast of developing China stories, especially those which are being censored.

China Digital Times (CDT) - this bilingual website puts China news into a broader social and political context for everyone to understand. CDT often shares official directives from the censorship authorities.

Supervision by the People / 人民监督网 - the founder of this site, a journalist, has exclusive material on corrupt officials and has reported on over 50 cases. Some of his stories are widely reported by mainland Chinese media.


We have also unblocked the following properties that further the discussion about internet censorship and circumvention techniques:

Pao Pao - we launched a mirror for this new Chinese language website in March, 2014. The purpose of the site is to share information about internet freedom in China.

Lantern - we have unblocked Lantern’s Chinese language forum so that users in China can learn how to download and operate this circumvention tool so that they can access other websites.

Program Think / 编程随想的博客 - this blog provides summaries and original analysis on current events. The blogger is a programmer who uses his blog to share information on ways to get around the Great Firewall. In 2013, he was nominated for an award for best blog from The Bobs.

We have also unblocked our own FreeWeibo website. The site was blocked days after its launch in October, 2012.

In addition, we have expanded collateral freedom to mobile applications:

FreeWeibo Android App - we developed and released an Android app for FreeWeibo in April, 2014. The download link for the app uses collateral freedom and is difficult-to-block.

China Digital Times (CDT) Android App - launched in May, 2014. The authorities cannot block the downloading of the app nor can they block content delivery to the app.

Pao Pao Android App - launched in August, 2014. The authorities cannot block the downloading of the app nor can they block content delivery to the app.



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Thu, Aug 10, 2023

1.4 million people used FreeBrowser to circumvent the Great Firewall of Turkmenistan

Since 2021, the authorities in Turkmenistan have taken exceptional measures to crack down on the use of circumvention tools. Citizens have been forced to swear on the Koran that they will not use a VPN. Circumvention tool websites have been systematically blocked. Arbitrary searches of mobile devices have also taken place and have even targeted school children and teachers.

The government has also blocked servers hosting VPNs which led to “near complete” internet shutdowns on several occasions in 2022. Current reports indicate that 66 hosting providers, 19 social networks and messaging platforms, and 10 leading content delivery networks (CDNs), are blocked in the country. The government presumably is unconcerned about the negative economic impact that such shutdowns can cause.

Fri, Mar 18, 2022

Well-intentioned decisions have just made it easier for Putin to control the Russian Internet

This article is in large part inspired by a recent article from Meduza (in Russian).

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Russian users have had problems accessing government websites and online banking clients. Browsers began to mark these sites as unsafe and drop the connection. The reason is the revocation of digital security certificates by foreign certificate authorities (either as a direct consequence of sanctions or as an independent, good will move); without them, browsers do not trust sites and “protect” their users from them.

However, these actions, caused - or at least triggered by - a desire to punish Russia for their gruesome actions in Ukraine, will have long-lasting consequences for Russian netizens.

Digital certificates are needed to confirm that the site the user wants to visit is not fraudulent. The certificates contain encryption keys to establish a secure connection between the site and the user. It is very easy to understand whether a page on the Internet is protected by a certificate. One need just look at the address bar of the browser. If the address begins with the https:// prefix, and there is a lock symbol next to the address, the page is protected. By clicking on this lock, you can see the status of the connection, the name of the Certification Authority (CA) that issued the certificate, and its validity period.

There are several dozen commercial and non-commercial organizations in the world that have digital root certificates, but 3/4 of all certificates are issued by only five of the largest companies. Four of them are registered in the USA and one is registered in Belgium.

Mon, Aug 03, 2020

Announcing the Release of GreatFire AppMaker

GreatFire (, 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 ( 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 ( 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 (

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, 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.

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