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Cracking the 'Great Firewall' of China's Web censorship

April 25, 2008

Hacking Past China's Web Censors

By Paul Wiseman, USA TODAY
HONG KONG
April 24, 2008

If an Internet user in China searches for the word "persecution," he or
she is likely to come up with a link to a blank screen that says "page
cannot be displayed."

The same is true of searches for "Tibetan independence," "democracy
movements" or stranger sounding terms such as "oriental red space
time"  code for an anti-censorship video made secretly by reporters at
China's state TV station.

It's a reflection of the stifling, bizarre and sometimes dangerous world
of Internet censorship in China. The communist government in Beijing is
intensifying its efforts to control what its citizens can read and
discuss online as political tensions rise ahead of this summer's Olympic
Games.

Fighting the censors every step of the way is an army of self-described
"hacktivists" such as Bill Xia, a Chinese-born software engineer who
lives in North Carolina. Xia and others are engaged in a kind of
technological arms race, inventing software and using other tactics to
allow ordinary Chinese to beat the "Great Firewall of China" and access
information on sensitive subjects such as Chinese human rights and
Tibet, the province where pro-independence sentiment has boiled over in
recent months.

Invoking the hit science-fiction movie The Matrix, Xia has compared what
he does to giving Chinese Web surfers a "red pill" that lets them see
reality for the first time. He spends long nights struggling to outfox
an opponent  the Chinese government  that is arguably the world's best
at controlling what its people see.

"They are very smart," Xia says. "We have to move very quickly."

To Americans and other Westerners, it might seem odd that Internet
censorship is still possible at a time when YouTube, satellite TV and
online chat rooms produce an overwhelming flow of real-time news and
data. Yet authoritarian regimes from Cuba to Saudi Arabia to Pakistan
rely on a mix of sophisticated technology and old-fashioned intimidation
to ensure that dissent can be repressed, even in the Information Age.

No one does it quite like China, which has proved that old-school
communist apparatchiks could tame something as wild as the Web. China
has the world's "most sophisticated" Internet filtering system,
according to the OpenNet Initiative, an academic cooperative that tracks
censorship issues.

At the heart of China's censorship efforts is a delicate balancing act.

Unlike communist North Korea, which bans online access to its general
population, China is encouraging Internet usage as it rushes to
construct a modern economy. This year, the number of Internet users in
China surpassed the USA for the first time, hitting 233 million by the
end of March. However, China's government does not tolerate opposition
and is wary of the variety of views and information the Web brings.

Last month's pro-independence riots in Tibet, and the accompanying furor
that followed the international relay of the Olympic torch, have led
Chinese officials to step up their Web censorship. News articles and
video clips concerning Tibet were banned for several days. Xia expects
the censorship will tighten further in the coming months because "many
human rights organizations will be trying to get their voices heard"
during the Olympic Games.

"There will be lots of news out there," says Xia, who admits he had
little interest in politics until the Chinese government banned the
spiritual group Falun Gong in 1999 and started persecuting its members.
Xia is a member of the group.

"Lots of unexpected things are going to happen," he says.

Forbidden words, stories

The most basic tool at the Chinese government's disposal  and, perhaps,
the one most easily circumvented by dissidents  is to ban access within
China to websites such as Voice of America or to certain stories that
contain sensitive words and phrases. For example, several recent USA
TODAY stories about Tibet are currently blocked within China.

Other censorship methods are more blunt. This month, Hu Jia, an activist
on AIDS and other issues, was sentenced to 3½ years in jail for articles
he wrote for Boxun.com, a U.S.-based Chinese-language website that is
banned in China. At least 48 cyberdissidents are behind bars in China,
according to Reporters Without Borders.

Chinese officials with the Ministry of Information Industry, the State
Council Information Office and other agencies declined to comment on why
China restricts content on the Internet.

Past explanations by the government focus on the need to prevent
"harmful" content such as pornography and terrorism from reaching citizens.

Even those "hacktivists" who live outside the country apparently face
risks. Peter Li  a Chinese-born, Princeton-educated computer
specialist  says he learned that two years ago when he answered the
doorbell at his home in suburban Atlanta.

Three men burst inside, beat him, bound him and gagged him with duct
tape, he says. Speaking Korean and Chinese, they ransacked his filing
cabinets and hauled off his two computers. They ignored a TV, a
camcorder and other valuables.

The FBI and the local Fulton County, Ga., police still have not found
the men responsible for the attack. But Li, who like Xia is a practicing
member of Falun Gong, says it was an attempt by the Chinese government
to shut him up.

"I know it wasn't a simple robbery," he says.

The Chinese government has denied any involvement in the raid on Li's home.

There are a range of other methods China has used to suppress
information. Among them:

"Creating bottlenecks. In The Atlantic magazine last month, journalist
James Fallows noted that Internet traffic to China is channeled through
three computer centers  near Beijing, Shanghai and the southern city of
Guangzhou.

In the USA, by contrast, the Internet is designed to avoid traffic jams
by allowing information to flow from as many sources as possible. By
building in chokepoints, Fallows wrote, "Chinese authorities can easily
do something that would be harder in most developed countries:
physically monitor all traffic into or out of the country."

"Checking Internet traffic for subversive material. This is done in much
the same way police dogs sniff airport luggage for illegal drugs. The
Chinese install "packet sniffers" and special routers to inspect data as
they cruise past the chokepoints. If the detectors spot a Chinese
Internet user trying to visit a suspect website  say, one run by Falun
Gong  they can block the connection.

A frustrated user might get a message saying: "Site not found."
Similarly, Web users can be stopped from leaving subversive comments in
online forums. Sometimes they get notes back warning them to behave or
apologizing for technical problems.

"Demanding self-censorship. Chinese authorities hold commercial websites
responsible for what appears on them. In Beijing  where Internet
controls are strictest  authorities issue orders to website managers
through cellphone text messages and demand that they comply within 30
minutes, according to a report last fall by Reporters Without Borders.

When the Internet portal Sina altered the headline of a state media
report on the economy, the government accused it of "inciting violence"
and excluded it from interviews with important officials for a month.
The website NetEase fired two editors after they published a 2006 poll
showing that 64% of 10,000 participants would not want to be reborn as
Chinese.

"Issuing propaganda. Authorities in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen
created two cute cartoon cybercops  the male Jingjing and the female
Chacha  that pop up on websites to remind Internet users they're being
watched. The Beijing Youth Daily newspaper quoted a security official
admitting that the big-eyed cartoon duo were designed "to intimidate."

Chinese officials also order websites to reprint official propaganda
such as a report encouraging Internet users to abide by online etiquette.

"Getting outside help. China has policed the Internet with assistance
from U.S. firms. Cisco Systems, for instance, supplied the original
routers China used to monitor Internet traffic. (Cisco has said it
didn't tailor its equipment for the Chinese market.)

Google created a censored search engine for China. Outside China, users
who search Google Images for "Tiananmen Square" get pictures from the
1989 pro-democracy protests that ended in a crackdown that left hundreds
dead  and included the iconic photograph of a lone man staring down a
line of Chinese tanks. Inside China, users get only tourist images of
Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City across the street.

Yahoo turned over e-mail that authorities used to jail a Chinese
journalist who leaked information about China's attempts to censor
coverage of the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown.. (The companies
say they had to comply with Chinese law.)

Despite China's strategies, sophisticated Internet users in the country
"can pretty much get as much information as (they) want," says Jeremy
Goldkorn, the Beijing-based editor of the China media website
danwei.org. "But what (the government does) is make it difficult, so the
ordinary person is not going to bother."

Censorship loopholes

In 2002, Xia formed a company  Dynamic Internet Technology  to wage
cyberwar on the Chinese regime. He created Freegate, a software program
that finds holes in the firewall and takes Chinese Internet users to
banned websites, undetected.

Xia also sends millions of e-mail messages into China for customers such
as Voice of America and the activist group Human Rights in China. The
e-mails contain links to forbidden sites at an ever-changing list of
temporary Internet addresses, part of an effort to stay a step ahead of
Chinese censors.

Traffic on his network of "proxy" websites picked up in February, when
heavy snows blocked traffic and shut train service in southern China,
Xia says.

The Chinese government was reluctant to admit anything had gone wrong,
so frustrated travelers turned to renegade websites to get practical
information on weather conditions and rail service.

Even so, Chinese authorities constantly are finding new ways to plug the
holes Freegate finds or to otherwise stymie Xia's efforts. He figures
has upgraded Freegate 20 times. "We're gradually getting faster and
faster" at fixing problems with the software when Chinese users report
them, he says.

Chinese Internet users also use decidedly low-tech methods to evade
official attempts to censor their e-mail or online commentary.

They will, for instance, try to throw off the cybercops by inserting
spaces or punctuation marks between characters  much as spammers in the
USA try to beat e-mail filters by offering "Free V i@gra!"

The authorities try to update their list of banned terms  now running
into the hundreds  to include those with creative punctuation.

Rebecca MacKinnon, former Beijing bureau chief for CNN, spotted the way
some cheeky Chinese Internet users stayed ahead of the censors. Whenever
their edgy comments were purged from a website, they'd joke online that
they'd "been harmonized"  a sarcastic reference to Chinese President Hu
Jintao's calls for a "harmonious society." Soon, the censors caught on
and added "harmonized" to the blacklist.

The Chinese term for "harmonized" is he xie which sounds the same as
the Chinese term for "river crabs" but with a slightly different
intonation. Now, Chinese online chatter frequently includes references
to river crabs  the latest code for censorship, says MacKinnon, who
studies the Chinese Internet at the University of Hong Kong.

Xia says he's confident the "hacktivists" can win their cat-and-mouse
game with the Chinese authorities. After all, he says, the Chinese
zodiac favors rodents in 2008: "It's the Year of the Rat."

Contributing: Calum MacLeod in Beijing
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