How to beat China’s Great Firewall, one salvaged Weibo message at a time

Another way to get over the Great Firewall.
Another way to get over the Great Firewall.
Image: Reuters
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The rollicking conversation on Sina Weibo, the popular Chinese microblogging service with more than 50 million active users, has gotten a little strained in the last few months, as the government’s escalating online crackdown has landed popular online commentators and regular citizens in jail. But even as the government and private companies like Sina intensify their censorship of Weibo posts that criticize Beijing or discuss controversial issues like the Bo Xilai trial, the so-called Great Firewall of China is showing a few cracks.

This week the year-old website FreeWeibo, which allows internet users to search for blocked Weibo terms, unveiled a new feature called “Decrypt Weibo” that lets users to read messages even after they’ve been removed by censors. FreeWeibo and its sister website Greatfire, which monitors which websites are blocked in China, were founded by three partners who remain anonymous and don’t discuss their location, or much else.

Quartz recently spoke via Google Talk to “Charlie Smith,” one of the three founders, about the changing state of censorship in China.

Quartz: How and why did start GreatFire and FreeWeibo, and can you tell me about who is behind it?

Charlie Smith: I can’t give you that much background. I can’t say where I am based or what I’ve done before, all I can say is there are three co-founders and we all have close ties to China and that’s really about it.

We started in 2011 with tracking URLs in China because we were upset about online censorship in China and wanted to provide a resource to show very clearly what was blocked.

After we started that, we thought ‘Well that’s all fine and good but it’s not really helping the normal Chinese internet user to show them what’s being blocked.’ So we started FreeWeibo, and of course that’s blocked in China, but people can get around it. It has done really well.

Q: How do you define “really well?”

CS: We get over 10,000 visitors a day, which we’re pretty happy about, and that number goes up at certain times, like the Bo Xilai trial or on June 4 [The anniversary of the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989].

It’s hard to say where our audience is coming from [many are using a VPN that masks their location] but from the language settings we can see that most of our users use simplified Chinese so we assume they are mainland visitors.

Q. How does “Decrypt Weibo” work exactly?

CS: When Sina Weibo is censored, there’s just a hole in your timeline that becomes filled with this message “Sorry this message is not suitable for the public.” Most users know it’s a censored or deleted message.

It can get propagated right across the social network. You can go on right now and write a message that gets censored, and 100 people can repost it, and the way it shows up in those posts is a message that has been censored too, but I can respond to it, and my response will appear.

There’s a time stamp from that original message, just like on Twitter—you copy the time stamp and you stick it into our little search engine.

Q: So you’re making a copy of every Sina Weibo message?

CS: That’s about the right description, yes.

Q: That must take a huge amount of storage space.

CS: It is taking space. We volunteered our time and our efforts and some of our own money to finance what we’re doing but we do have some support now, and it is paying for some of these things. Yes, there are costs.

Q: What’s your ultimate goal?

CS: We really believe we’re going to bring this system down. We fancy our chances for ending online censorship. What we’re doing with Decrypt Weibo is we put Sina Weibo in a very difficult position. They have to spend a lot of money and man hours to circumvent our circumvention too. We’re a big pain in the ass for them.

Our hope is that we put the pressure on them and they put the pressure on the government, by saying “This is ridiculous.” We hope we can get it to a point where they just drop this online censorship. We’ll be out of business and we’ll be super happy, that’s what we’re going for.