The New York Times vs. The Chinese Authorities

Quietly, the New York Times is helping to enable the end of censorship in China, and preparing to take advantage of a free and open media in a post-censorship China. In this regard, they are unique amongst their peers - no other media organization has shown anywhere near the same level of determination. Some might call it stubbornness.

The blocking of the New York Times in 2012 fits well within the pattern of how foreign news organizations get treated in China (see a short history below this story). Soon after the launch of the Chinese New York Times in the summer of 2012, the Times published a story (in English and Chinese) about the personal wealth of Wen Jiabao and quickly found both of their websites blocked.

It is not hard to imagine that in October, 2012, after their sites were blocked, the senior management at the New York Times thought about cutting their losses early and pulling the plug on their Chinese language news effort. Even when the New York Times found that their journalist visas were not being renewed, this hardly affected editorial or the business. The Times actually strengthened their team, hiring journalists who were responsible for some firewall-blocking worthy stories of their own.

The Times recently launched a new Chinese-language product - in print. In May, 2015, they released a publication in Hong Kong and Macau, in simplified Chinese, targeting mainland visitors. The publication includes uncensored news and helps to build their brand with affluent Chinese travelers.

On the launch of this publication, Craig Smith, Managing Director for the New York Times in China, said:

Our Chinese audience has grown enormously through cn.NYTimes.com and we are excited to complement our digital offering by bringing high-quality coverage of world affairs, business and culture to our Chinese readers in print.

The Times have also exploited holes in the great firewall to distribute their uncensored content inside China. In March, 2013 both the New York Times and GreatFire.org news sharing pages on GitHub were attacked by the Chinese authorities.

Most recently, GreatFire has worked with the New York Times to integrate our technique of collateral freedom behind the New York Times Android application. Once downloaded, news stories are constantly updated. No information is censored and because of our advanced circumvention technology, the authorities have not found a way to block the app, or any of our other apps (like FreeBrowser). The authorities back off from taking such action because they understand that this manoeuvre would have considerable negative economic consequences.

Most critical to the Times success in China, senior management have rarely swayed in the face of pressure. Current CEO Mark Thompson said in 2013:

My view is that the New York Times should be seeking to report the entire world objectively and fairly but pursuing stories of public interest wherever we find them - that includes China.

We believe not just for ourselves but for all news outlets. It is in all countries' interest to allow journalists to do their work freely.

In 2012, after the websites were blocked, a Times spokesperson said:

China is an increasingly open society, with increasingly sophisticated media, and the response to our site suggests that the Times can play an important role in the government’s efforts to raise the quality of journalism available to the Chinese people.

Compared to other news outlets or media companies, it is likely that the Times has benefitted from a consistent approach to doing business in China. That approach has been relatively simple. They have have refused to compromise on their principles and have delivered the same message to the Chinese authorities - that by not allowing their content to be accessible by all Chinese the authorities are doing themselves a disservice.

What have the authorities done in response? Seemingly, the authorities have loosened their controls. Late last year Times journalists started to receive visas to work in China again. Could the New York Times be setting the best path forward for news organizations in China?

Disclaimer: GreatFire.org works with The New York Times to deliver uncensored content to audiences in China.

-----

A very short history of news censorship in China

Post-opening up and before the rise of the internet, foreigners who wished to publish in China would have to obtain a local license. Obtaining a license meant paying big bucks, agreeing to self-censorship, losing control over your brand, having no say in day-to-day operations, or a combination of these factors.

The opening of the internet in China presented new opportunities and with it new challenges. Most foreign news organizations were trying to figure out business models at home. A few tried to make inroads into China by publishing news in Chinese. But then the great firewall rose and since then it has simply been a matter of just adding news organizations to the list of blocked websites.

There are always exceptions and anomalies, but the following guidelines apply for the vast majority of foreign news websites in China.

The question of being blocked or not blocked is relatively straightforward. Organizations who do not agree to self-censor their content get blocked. Even organizations that self-censor may remain blocked. Bloomberg falls into this category. If your organization is involved in any major investigative journalism piece that involves the Chinese leadership, your site will get blocked (see ICIJ). It is not just English and Chinese language news sources that get blocked. French (Le Monde), Spanish (El Pais) and content in other languages will also be blocked.

Organizations that have paywalls in place may not be blocked (FT). Those whose websites are unencrypted (http rather than https) may find that the home page is accessible while certain negative stories are not (FT Chinese). But even the authorities are tiring of this approach and are more likely to block entire sites rather than bother with blocking selective stories.

Foreign news organizations that are producing content in Chinese will likely see both their Chinese and English language websites blocked (WSJ, SCMP). Almost all major overseas Chinese language news websites are blocked in China (Boxun, Duowei).

 

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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).

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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