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A Back Door to Chinese Internet Freedom

A Back Door to Chinese Internet Freedom

In January, when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), a U.S. journalism nonprofit, published an exposé of the use of offshore tax havens by Chinese politicians and business moguls, the Chinese government blocked access to the consortium’s website and to news articles about the report. Internet users in China trying to load ICIJ.org or follow-up stories by the Guardian, the New York Times, and other news organizations saw a familiar message: "This web page is not available."

So free-speech activists like those at the secretive anti-censorship website GreatFire.org deployed a way for Chinese to access the ICIJ report: They uploaded it to Amazon Web Services (AWS) — a cloud-hosting service used by large companies around the world, including in China. Netizens then spread the word about the AWS link, which could be accessed without a virtual private network (VPN) or other privacy software. Posting the ICIJ report on Amazon was but one of the latest deployments of a strategy called "collateral freedom," the title of an April 2013 report by the Open Internet Tools Project (OpenITP), a New York-based nonprofit that fights government censorship around the world. It dares censors to block access at the cost of inflicting collateral damage — in this case, on China’s economy.

Amazon says thousands of Chinese customers, including major corporations, use AWS for database management and other cloud-computing applications. But just as businesses can store data on AWS, so can other users. This poses a dilemma for government censors: They can’t selectively block content on encrypted cloud services, according to officials at GreatFire.org, OpenITP, and other Internet freedom advocacy groups. China must either tolerate the material — or block AWS entirely and undermine the businesses using it. (Amazon did not respond to requests for a comment about the use of AWS by GreatFire.org and others to circumvent censorship in China.)

The OpenITP report introducing the concept was based on a survey of 1,175 Chinese residents who routinely "jump over the wall" to avoid the censors. These individuals, still a tiny minority of China’s more than 600 million Internet users, use a variety of tools, from virtual private networks to GoAgent, a browser plug-in that runs on Google’s cloud-hosting platform. But the tools have one thing in common: "the collateral cost of choosing to block them is prohibitive for China’s censors," the OpenITP report stated.

That’s because Chinese businesses also rely on VPNs and Google’s cloud infrastructure, the study stated. "Our survey respondents are relying not on tools that the Great Firewall can’t block, but rather on tools that the Chinese government does not want the Firewall to block," it stated. "Internet freedom for these users is collateral freedom, built on technologies and platforms that the regime finds economically or politically indispensable."

There are advantages to looking at Internet freedom "through an economic lens," said David Robinson, a technology consultant and visiting fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project who co-authored the OpenITP report. "Economic growth is a value that the United States and China share. The conversation about Internet freedom sometimes takes place in ways that seem distinctively American or distinctively Western." But, he said, more progress may be made if economic growth is the "central animating goal" of increasing access to information on the Internet.

The loudest cheerleader for "collateral freedom" in China has been an organization called GreatFire.org, which monitors and opposes censorship behind the so-called Great Firewall. The group has created four websites in the encrypted cloud out of otherwise blocked content. Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous spokesman for GreatFire.org, stated in an email interview that under the "collateral freedom" banner, his organization is "creating ‘unblockable’ mirrors via ‘unblockable’ cloud services." (Smith and other GreatFire.org officials refuse to give their real names or discuss specifics of their organization because they say they fear retribution by Chinese authorities.)

"Collateral freedom" can be exercised in two ways, and both entail trade-offs. When individuals install a VPN or similar tool, they can access any site (such as YouTube, Facebook, or NYTimes.com) that is blocked. But individual Internet users must implement this solution themselves on each computer or device — a task requiring a certain level of technological competence. When an organization uploads otherwise-blocked content to the encrypted cloud, it can be accessed by anybody with a computer, potentially reaching a mass audience. But, of course, this frees only the uploaded material.

Using tools like VPNS are a far more common way for residents of China to circumvent the Ministry of Public Security’s censorship and surveillance system, which is formally called the Golden Shield and colloquially known as the Great Firewall. The Great Firewall blocks access to thousands of websites focusing on what authorities deem politically "sensitive" issues or individuals (such as the Dalai Lama) or offering unfiltered discussions. The blocked sites include not only fairly obvious targets like the websites of human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Freedom House, but also news organizations such as Radio Free Asia and the New York Times and social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Many sites are blocked on moral grounds because they promote pornography or gambling. Other blocked sites are less predictable, ranging from Medicare.gov to Internet.org to a portal on Taiwanese culture.

GreatFire.org has only used mirror sites a handful of times. One reason the numbers are so small, Smith said, is that "it is a relatively new concept — most people don’t know [about it]. We have not had enough general press exposure to make people understand what it is using layman’s language." Moreover, Smith stated, small websites that are blocked in China may lack the technical know-how or financial resources to create a mirror site on Amazon. And for a big site like the New York Times, "this is a major political decision which likely would involve trying to get people to buy in to the concept and for them to be willing to stand up to censorship in such a public way."

Collateral freedom faces other challenges. The content on AWS, for example, must use the http://s3.amazonaws.com domain name. This can result in unwieldy URLs like https://s3.amazonaws.com/icij/www.icij.org/project/zhong-guo-chi-jin-rong-jie-mi.htm.

The biggest challenge, however, is the potential pushback. What would happen if Chinese officials pressure Amazon to remove the content they want to censor? Or if China’s government decides to cut off Amazon Web Services entirely? "There’s going to be pressure on AWS," predicts University of Toronto researcher Jason Ng, author of the book and blog Blocked on Weibo. He said China might try to thwart collateral freedom by moving all of AWS’s Chinese customers to a separate cloud and then blocking access to the domain used by GreatFire.org and other activists.

King-wa Fu, an assistant professor and censorship researcher at the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong, agrees that the Chinese government eventually will play hardball. If the mirror sites attract a tipping-point level of Chinese visitors, Fu fears "that the Chinese government would block Amazon or ask Amazon to take down the contents."

To date, activists who have posted otherwise-censored content on AWS have not heard from Amazon or Chinese authorities. "Not a peep," Smith said. "And I hope it stays like this." And what if the company asks GreatFire.org to take down its mirror sites? "We’d make as public a fuss about it as we could — draw as much media attention to Amazon’s practices as would be possible," Smith said. "We would not remove the material if they asked us to."

This article was produced by ChinaFile.