GreatFire Q&A with Jimmy Wales on China Censorship

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.

We have been critical of Wikipedia’s approach to censorship in the Middle Kingdom. In a recent piece for the Huffington Post, I lamented the loss of Wikipedia in China. The encyclopedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, who is also a staunch and public anti-censorship champion, reached out to us on Twitter. Jimmy agreed to publish our unedited exchange on the difficult nature of dealing with censorship in China.


Q: What is Wikipedia doing to combat censorship in China and elsewhere?

A: Wikipedia opposes censorship worldwide.  We have a very firm policy, never breached, to never cooperate with government censorship in any region of the world.  It is my view that access to knowledge - particularly factual encyclopedic knowledge of the kind put forth by Wikipedia - is a fundamental human right, a corollary to the right of freedom of speech.

I have personally worked to lobby governments around the world to change their policies.  And the Wikipedia community has at times successfully gone on strike, turning Wikipedia black for a day in various languages, in order to protest against censorship.


Q: In 2012, you threatened to make Wikipedia HTTPS by default in the UK in an effort to derail the Snooper's Charter. The Communications Bill would have allowed the UK authorities to track their citizens web and phone use. You suggested that this kind of activity was something you would expect in “Iran or China”. Why did you not threaten China in the same way?

A:  We didn’t just threaten - we did it.  Wikipedia is now HTTPS everywhere.  We have been 100% consistent in our principled approach to the opposition of spying on people using technology.  We have known for a long time that there was a problem with clear text transmission of Wikipedia, but like many people, we didn’t realize how bad the situation had gotten until Ed Snowden’s revelations about the actions of the NSA.

Moving to HTTPS everywhere was a technical challenge for a number of reasons.  We did it in stages, and we have always understood that it would likely lead to the complete block of Wikipedia in some countries.


Q: We believe that you would never voluntarily practice censorship. However, allowing the Chinese authorities to censor individual content is very similar to the strategy of some media organizations, i.e. they build a full version site and also a "clean" site which results in the full version getting blocked while the clean version remains accessible.

Whether this approach can be seen as technically self-censorship is up for debate, but the end result is that Chinese get a version that complies with the Chinese censorship standards. Was this the thinking behind the China strategy?

A:  We do not allow the Chinese authorities to censor individual content.  So this is a silly thing for you to say.

That is not up for debate - it's an entirely silly notion.  Someone who steadfastly refuses to comply with censorship and moves forward aggressively to combat censorship in every venue can hardly be said to be "self-censoring" when China is the one doing the censoring.

The thing you should understand is that such debate tactics are sad. Rather than championing and supporting people working hard - both publicly and behind the scenes - to champion freedom of information, such silly arguments merely make people inclined to just not listen to you.

One aspect of this whole thing that is different for us from just about any other website is that we are very strongly community-driven.  So when we think about what are the exact best tactics for us to advance freedom of speech in China, we think about and respect the views of our community members inside China. Ultimately we might be forced to overrule them, but they are passionate about the issue of free and open access to Wikipedia and for us to authoritatively bumble around based on pressure from activists *rather than* engage in a slow and thoughtful consultation with community members about the best way forward would be a mistake.


Q: So community members in China were against moving to an all-encrypted version of Wikipedia before because they feared that the site would get blocked? What is the reaction of the community now that the site is blocked?

A: In any community discussion, there will be voices on various sides of an issue.  The community has been very supportive of our move to HTTPS, even though the resulting current situation is that Wikipedia is likely to remain blocked for a long time.


Q: What do you think is the future of internet censorship in China? Do you think we will ever seen a loosening of restrictions or will things only continue to get worse?

A: It greatly depends on the world reaction to what is happening in China. If the western world stops turning a blind eye on censorship in China and invoke pressure on the Chinese authorities to allow more freedoms, things will change positively. This is one of the things I am thriving to achieve through the Jimmy Wales Foundation. We all must take responsibility and raise our voice for change.


Q: If you sat down with China’s cyber czar (Lu Wei, the head of the Cyberspace Administration of China) what would you say to him?

A: The same thing I have said to his predecessor’s and to similar authorities in other countries around the world: you are on the wrong side of history.

Actually, in China, because the usual excuse for censorship is that it promotes a harmonious society, I tend to lead with a discussion about how the censorship program leads to disharmony.  I want to push them to rethink their principles from scratch.


Q: If Lu Wei told you that he would not unblock Wikipedia unless you censor content or disable encryption by default, how would you respond?

A: We will never compromise. I'm more patient than they are.


Q: What would be your advice to a foreign internet firm dependent on user-generated content that is looking to enter the China market?

A: I am afraid that I wouldn’t have any specific advice, other than to warn them that it will be difficult.


Q: Which foreign firms are “doing it right” in China, in your opinion?

A: It’s not really appropriate for me to comment in detail.  In some cases I know privately what some companies are doing to help users defeat censorship, but if I talk about that, it will cause those efforts to fail.

But I also think that free speech activists should back off from tactics that involve naming and shaming people who are trying to do the right thing.  There are different strategies that may work at different times and for different companies.  Sometimes when companies say that the Chinese are better off by having access to their service, even if it is filtered, they are just being weak on human rights - but sometimes that argument can make sense.

If a company is in a complex situation of compromise and offers the defense that they are working to improve matters in China, then it is appropriate to ask them: how are you trying to improve matters?  Have you hired lobbyists to try to argue for changing the law, etc.?


Q: If you could turn back time, what would you change about Wikipedia’s approach to China, if anything?

A: I think our approach has been better than anyone’s.  I could say that I wish we had done X or Y differently - things haven’t always gone perfectly, and Wikipedia has been blocked for long stretches more than once - but it isn’t clear that if we went back and tried a different approach that it would have worked better.  History doesn’t work that way!

I am most proud that we have always been 100% uncompromising, and better than any other major website on these issues.



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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.

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.

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A few matters to clear the air.

Jimmy Wales is not "Wikipedia's founder". The idea of a wiki encyclopedia was pushed on Wales by his employee, Dr. Larry Sanger. Sanger named it "Wikipedia", Sanger issued the first public call for participation on Wikipedia, and in the first months of operation Sanger's edits outnumbered those of Wales by more than 600%.

Next, Jimmy's claim about "a very firm policy, never breached, to never cooperate with government censorship in any region of the world" is bogus. According to, "The most irritating censorship [in the UAE] is likely to be the increasing number of Wikipedia pages that are blocked". Well, guess who just visited Dubai and pocketed a $500,000 prize from their government? Jimmy Wales. Sounds like that firm policy got breached a half a million times.

Lastly, Jimmy Wales says he "aggressively combats censorship in every venue". Well, except when he does the censorship himself, when the message is uncomfortable to his reputation. See the story in The Telegraph, entitled "Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales restricts discussion of Tony Blair friendship".

As The Register recently put it so eloquently about Jimmy Wales -- "How can you tell Jimbo is lying? His lips are moving".

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