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January 16, 2010
Scaling the Digital Wall in China
By BRAD STONE<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/s/brad_stone/index.html?inline=nyt-per>
and DAVID BARBOZA<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/b/david_barboza/index.html?inline=nyt-per>
The Great Firewall of
Just as Mongol invaders could not be stopped by the Great Wall, Chinese
citizens have found ways to circumvent the sophisticated Internet censorship
systems designed to restrict them.
They are using a variety of tools to evade government filters and to reach
the wide-open Web that the Chinese government deems dangerous — sites like
good on its threat to withdraw from China, Google.cn.
It’s difficult to say precisely how many people in China engage in acts of
digital disobedience. But college students in China and activists around the
world say the number has been growing ever since the government stepped up
efforts to “cleanse” the Web during the Beijing Olympics and the Communist
regime’s 60th anniversary last year.
As part of that purge, the Chinese government shut down access to
pornography sites, blogs, online video sites, Facebook,
While only a small percentage of Chinese use these tools to sidestep
government filters, the ease with which they can do it illustrates the
difficulty any government faces in enforcing the type of strict censorship
that was possible only a few years ago.
Jason Ng, a Chinese engineering school graduate who will say only that he
works in the media business, wakes every day at 8:30 a.m., and then begins
his virtual travels through an open, global network by fanqiang, or “scaling
the wall.” He connects to an overseas computer with a link, called a proxy
server, that he set up himself. It costs 15 renminbi, or around $2, a month
to share with about two dozen other friends.
Mr. Ng then works on his blog and checks the news on Google Reader and
Twitter to “officially start my day of information.” Chinese citizens
engaged in such practices say the government rarely cracks down on them
individually, preferring instead to go after prominent dissidents who
publish information about forbidden topics online.
As a result, college students, human rights activists, bloggers, journalists
and even multinational corporations in China are rushing to use tools that
go over or around barriers set up by Chinese regulators, in part because
they feel it is the only way to participate in a global online community.
Isaac Mao, a well-known blogger and activist in China, says the number of
people seeking access to blocked sites has grown as more and more popular
Web sites have been shut down by Beijing.
These digital dissidents have begun to organize small conferences and
networks to share information and tricks about how to get access to banned
material. “People start to hold a grudge against the government for
depriving them of access to the Web sites they regularly visit,” Mr. Mao
But as the government has expanded its control over Internet, it has also
intensified efforts to close some of the channels being used to evade the
online blockade. The result has been a technological game of cat and mouse
between the Chinese government and a global contingent fighting for online
AnchorFree, a start-up based in Sunnyvale, Calif., has built a profitable
business by providing free, advertising-supported software called Hotspot
Shield that tunnels about 7.5 million people around the world into the
Internet by encrypting Internet users’ data and cloaking their identities.
But last summer, the Chinese government blocked AnchorFree’s Web site so
that Chinese citizens could no longer download the software. Almost
immediately, its users began e-mailing their own copies of the program to
friends and posting links to other sites that hosted it. The program’s use
in China has doubled since then, said David Gorodyansky, AnchorFree’s
Other censorship-evading tools have been created by nonprofit companies
trying to combat authoritarian governments and by former Chinese citizens
who, in many cases, want to help fellow members of persecuted minority
groups still in the country.
Several such tools were created by a group called G.I.F., or Global Internet
Freedom. It was founded in 1999 by members of the Falun
living in the United States as a way to get unfettered information about
their practice into the country by e-mail. About a million people in China
now use the service, which is maintained by about 50 volunteers around the
Users must download the G.I.F. programs and then every time they use
servers, find the Internet Protocol addresses, or online coordinates, of
servers around the world. G.I.F. volunteers try to distribute these
coordinates through a multitude of channels, like instant-messaging
David Tian, a NASA<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/n/national_aeronautics_and_space_administration/index.html?inline=nyt-org>
in Maryland who says he works harder at night on G.I.F. than he does during
the day on weather satellites, says that officials from the Chinese
government have begun posing as G.I.F. users, so they can intercept those
I.P. addresses and block them. In turn, G.I.F. volunteers now work to
identify these government officials and track them, so they can keep the
information out of their hands.
An even bigger challenge, Mr. Tian said, is keeping up with the rapidly
growing demand for the service from countries like China and Iran. “The
bottleneck is not their firewall, it’s our capacity,” he said. “We have to
limit bandwidth to what we can afford, so when there are a lot of users,
some have to wait.”
Many of these organizations are hoping the United States government will
help out with money. Since the 2008 budget year, Congress has appropriated
nearly $50 million for tools that encourage “Internet freedom,” though only
a small portion of that money has yet been handed out.
One problem, says Michael J. Horowitz, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, a
conservative policy research group, is that that the federal government
appears reluctant to pay for efforts associated with groups that alienate
the Chinese government.
“Many of these guys are Falun Gong practitioners and the State Department
doesn’t want to aggravate China,” he said. “China goes more nuclear at the
mention of Falun Gong than any other two words in the whole dictionary.”
Despite these bureaucratic battles, people on the side of greater Internet
freedoms in the continuing fight against Big Brother say the battlefield is
inherently tilted in their favor.
“The architecture of the Internet makes our work easier,” said Bill Xia, a
programmer based in North Carolina whose software tools, including DynaWeb
and FreeGate, are used by hundreds of thousands of people in China every day
to access forbidden sites. “The starting point of the Internet is open
networks. Everybody can publish and receive data, and unless they want to
shut down the whole Internet, we have the advantage.”
Brad Stone reported from San Francisco and David Barboza from Shanghai. Dan
Levin contributed reporting from Beijing, and Bao Beibei contributed
research from Shanghai.
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