Internet censorship is rife in China. Social media sites are not exempt — there are 2,000,000 people employed in the country specifically to monitor microblogging sites. Against this backdrop, FreeWeibo works tirelessly to keep track of and publish all the censored and deleted social media messages, providing a fascinating insight into the regime’s priorities and fears.
On October 4 2013, an app version of the site was launched in the Chinese Apple app store, created in association with Radio Netherlands Worldwide. The creators fended off some initial attacks, assuming the only way the app could be truly be blocked was through blocking the entire app store. They were in for a surprise when, on November 28, Apple themselves decided to take down the app following complaints from Beijing.
The people behind FreeWeibo remain undeterred. They have launched a new type of mirror site, which they say can circumvent Chinese censorship.
Index on Censorship’s Taylor Walker interviewed FreeWeibo.
Index: How does it feel to be nominated for Index’s Digital Advocacy award and why do you think FreeWeibo was nominated?
FreeWeibo: We are totally honoured to be even thought of for this award especially given the strengths of the other projects. To be considered in that kind of company is humbling. We are delighted that we can make it onto the radar for Index on Censorship. We tend to think that a lot of people feel that fighting Chinese censorship is a lost cause. Obviously, we don’t feel that way but we get a general sense that a lot of other organizations, companies, or individuals don’t feel that it was a battle worth fighting. We very much think that not only can we fight the battle but we can win the battle.
Index: Could you describe the changing composition of FreeWeibo over the past few years?
FreeWeibo: We started as GreatFire.org in 2011- that website still exists. What we do is we track what websites and key word searches are being blocked in China. We started just covering just a few hundred websites now we have 90,000 websites in our database that are constantly being tested for censorship. We also want it to be a resource for people that want to know more about what’s happening with censorship in China. We’ve been very successful with that as well. We started FreeWeibo because we thought it was the obvious thing to do to combat censorship on Sina Weibo.
Index: How was government scrutiny following the launch of FreeWeibo?
FreeWeibo: After we launched Free Weibo it was blocked in 3 days. The government is paying close attention to what we are doing. They were paying close attention to what we were doing before FreeWeibo. But now we are working a on a new concept which we call “Collateral Freedom”. We are basically creating mirror websites that are blocked in China and hosting them on global cloud services. It’s been proven that the Chinese authorities are unable to block our mirror websites without blocking everything that’s being hosted on the cloud. We are gambling that the Chinese authorities won’t move to block everything that’s hosted in the cloud because that would create a huge disturbance in internet service in China and there would be severe economic consequences related to such a block. We are leveraging the cloud to deliver sensitive information back into China – including our own FreeWeibo website.
So far, our mirror websites have not been blocked. What we are doing now is delivering others using that same method. I don’t know how high on the radar we are for the Chinese authorities but regardless, all co-founders have close ties to China and from the time we started the project we all knew that we were getting involved in something that the Chinese authorities probably wouldn’t agree with so we took precautions right from the start to protect our identities and to basically make our involvement as secure as possible and we will continue to do that.
Index: Last year FreeWeibo teamed with Radio Netherlands Worldwide and created an app described as “unblockable.” What was your reaction to finding that Apple blocked the app?
FreeWeibo: That was actually the worst feeling. Worse than finding out that the Chinese authorities had disabled one of our test locations, for example. We expect that the Chinese government will do whatever it takes to stop us and we know that that will put pressure on foreign multinationals. But to actually know that Apple listened and obeyed the censorship authorities – it was a really low and sad moment for all of us – truly disheartening. Apple presents this totally other side to its customers and if you look at the way it markets the company it’s not the kind of karma that you’d expect from Apple.
We increasingly recognize that one of the biggest threats to our operation are large multinational companies. We’ve proved time and again that we can defeat the great firewall and we can defeat censorship in China but we need to leverage other platforms to be able to do that. If multinationals continue to concede to censorship requests from the Chinese authorities then we are going to be left with fewer options in terms of defeating censorship.
Index: How would you describe Freedom of Expression?
FreeWeibo: Freedom of expression and freedom of speech are actually written into the China’s constitution. We think that these are basic rights that Chinese citizens should enjoy – as should citizens of many other countries around the world. With the Snowden revelations, people are becoming more aware of different types of surveillance and censorship – the landscape is changing. I can say with confidence that we have a very clear path to ending censorship in China. We are also confident that we can actually bring our anti-censorship tools to other countries. This year, we are hoping to expand what we are doing with Collateral Freedom, what we are doing with GreatFire, and maybe what we are doing with FreeWeibo so that we can bring freedom of expression and freedom of speech to countries that need our help.
Join us 20 March 2014 at the Barbican Centre for the Freedom of Expression Awards