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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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 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).

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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 DubaiFAQS.com, "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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