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

FreeBrowser.png

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.

 

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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

DW.png

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 BBC.com 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.

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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, 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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