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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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 now testing VPN speed and stability in China

There is a commonly held belief in China that if you have a VPN that works then you should keep quiet about it. In terms of freedom of access to information, the problem with this approach is that access to knowledge suddenly is a secret. Today we are launching a project that we hope will destroy that model.

Our newest website, Circumvention Central (CC), aims to provide real-time information and data about circumvention solutions that work in China. Since 2011, we have been collecting data about blocked websites in China and now we will add data about the effectiveness of VPNs and other circumvention tools.

We are launching CC with four main objectives in mind.

Our first objective is to help to grow the number of Chinese who circumvent censorship restrictions in China. By sharing our information and data about these tools, we hope to show a wider audience which circumvention tools are working.

Our second objective is to improve the circumvention experience for users in China by bringing transparency to tool performance. We will measure these tools on speed (how quickly popular websites are loaded) and on stability (the extent to which popular websites load successfully).

Sat, May 07, 2016

The New York Times vs. The Chinese Authorities

Could the New York Times be setting the best path forward for news organizations in China?

Thu, Feb 18, 2016

From the desk of Lu Wei: Apple, encryption and China

Lu Wei, Director of the Cyberspace Administration of China, offers some friendly help to FBI Director James Comey.
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