China has spent more than a decade building the Great Firewall, the digital barrier that prevents the country’s 600 million Internet users from reading what their government doesn’t want them to see online. As many as 50,000 government employees enforce the censorship of Web pages and search terms.
Greatfire.org, run by three dissidents with sharp computer skills and a penchant for secrecy, is giving people a way around the wall. The group has created three mirror websites, or duplicates of banned sites: the independent news outlet China Digital Times; a Chinese arm of Reuters; and Greatfire’s own site, Freeweibo.com, which collects and publishes posts deleted from China’s popular social media service Sina Weibo. Greatfire posts links to the mirror sites, maintains detailed, searchable databases of banned subjects and pages, and posts updates when the activists discover new ones.
Greatfire’s founders have kept their identities hidden from users, their three-member advisory board, and each other. “These guys are unique: They’re based in China, which makes it a pretty high-risk thing,” says advisory board member Rebecca MacKinnon, a U.S.-based senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and former Beijing bureau chief for CNN.
In China, Internet companies filter search results and block words and Web pages considered undesirable by officials at the State Internet Information Office. In September the government announced that it could jail Web users for as long as three years for posting comments judged to be defamatory or otherwise inappropriate. China’s Internet users are unlikely to see discussion of the Tiananmen Square crackdown or calls for state officials to disclose their assets. Facebook and Twitter are banned, and on March 14 dozens of prominent activists and journalists on the Twitter-like messaging service WeChat received notices that their accounts had been deleted for “violation of the rules.”
Of the 97,579 Web addresses that Greatfire was monitoring for censorship as of March 17, about 16 percent were blocked, including Dropbox and the websites of Reporters Without Borders and Amnesty International.
Greatfire’s secret to mirroring sites and reproducing deleted posts lies in its account with Amazon.com’s cloud-hosting arm, Amazon Web Services, which encrypts all of its Web pages. Chinese censors can’t pick and choose which pages to block—they would have to block everything hosted on AWS servers, including data for major Chinese companies such as smartphone maker Xiaomi and office software producer Kingsoft. “We believe that the Chinese authorities would not dare block all websites being served by AWS, because they understand the economic implications,” says a man who identified himself as a Greatfire co-founder and agreed to discuss the group’s activities only if referred to by his online pseudonym, Charlie Smith. An Amazon spokeswoman didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Smith, who says he’s based in China, wasn’t easy to find. Greatfire advisory board member and venture capitalist Isaac Mao, based in the U.S. and Hong Kong, helped this reporter set up an interview through a single-use conference call number and instant messaging. Smith works a regular 9-to-5 job and in his spare time manages Greatfire from a dedicated PC free of potentially identifying login info. He wouldn’t give details about his job or location, but he says he met the site’s other two founders, who go by the pseudonyms Percy Alpha and Martin Johnson, in an online forum in 2011. The three set up Greatfire in February of that year. “Most foreigners know that censorship exists in China. Many Chinese may be unaware,” Smith says. “We hope that Chinese users can see information they are meant not to see.”
In October 2012, Greatfire created Freeweibo.com. One of its goals is to show how the censors operate. Often, certain words are blocked one day and allowed the next. “The most insidious part of censorship is when people are unaware of what they don’t know,” says MacKinnon. “That’s when real manipulation happens.”
Greatfire was funded by its founders until this year, when it received a grant from the U.S. State Department. (Smith wouldn’t say how much.) It now accepts donations via PayPal. Internews, an Arcata (Calif.)-based nonprofit that backs community media, and Radio Netherlands Worldwide helped Greatfire build its site. Smith says his team plans to create more mirror sites this year, including some that will commemorate the Tiananmen protests. He acknowledges the vastness of Greatfire’s mission and concedes that it’s possible that Amazon’s service will get blocked or the company will decide to stop hosting Greatfire. In that case, he says, his team will move to other foreign cloud services.
“If we view this as a way to solve censorship in China, it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not a solution to the much larger problem,” says Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “This is an issue that clearly is not going away.”