GreatFire was set up in 2011 by three anonymous individuals to counter the “Great Firewall of China”, the systematic blocking by the Chinese government of any website deemed controversial, including any that touch on news, human rights, democracy or religion.
“We know them as a mix of folks within China and outside of China who have a mix of activism and technological expertise,” said Dan Meredith of the Open Tech Fund, one of GreatFire’s financial backers.
“Their motivations are not regime change, but purely wanting to see progress for the Chinese people, and see more reforms happen in the Chinese government. They’re passion driven, but they also have this insider knowledge about how to circumvent some of these really sophisticated things that are happening in China,” he told Index.
“GreatFire is quite a mysterious organisation,” Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia told Index. “It’s, roughly speaking, five people, maybe it’s not quite five, maybe its more,” he said. “But it really is just a small group of people who have come together to do something important.”
The team started out collecting data about which sites were blocked in China, and now monitors over thousands of sites, domains and Google searches. “They have a network of computers in and outside of China, testing for whether websites that are generally available to the public here in the UK or the US or any other country that has unrestricted access to the whole internet, are available within China,” Meredith explains. Their site also shows how much of the time it has been blocked, and offers an explanation as to how.
GreatFire are also the makers of FreeWeibo, which was a shortlisted in 2015’s Index Awards and acts as a mirror to Weibo, the popular, but heavily censored, Chinese social network. As well as this they also run FreeBooks, allowing people in China read censored books.
“GreatFire are one of the organisations that are really fighting hard against censorship in China,” said Wales.
But last year GreatFire’s work went from being an annoyance to the Chinese authorities, to being something they couldn’t ignore, Meredith explained.
Using an idea called collateral freedom, GreatFire made blocked sites accessible to millions in China and around the world. The collateral freedom idea works by pinning banned websites to those of big corporations (such as Amazon, Microsoft or GitHub) which, in order to compete in the global marketplace, China cannot block. When organisations normally blocked in China – like the BBC or Reuters – use, for example, amazon.com as a host their sites can remain visible in China.
In February 2015, GreatFire used this technology to release an Android app, allowing anyone in China, or in other countries where the web is censored, to access these otherwise censored sites. Everything they do is open source, so their work can be replicated by others.
However, it was GreatFire’s work with Reporters Without Borders, Meredith says, that finally caused the Chinese government to retaliate.
“We know is that they are incredibly frustrated by this collateral freedom idea,” he said. “But what happened last year when Reporters Without Borders started employing this is…there became a very big press strategy, so what ended up being a thing that was quietly annoying the Chinese became a very public thing that was annoying the Chinese.”
The project was launched on World Press Freedom Day in March 2015, and used collateral freedom to unblock websites around the world, making previously censored sites available in Russia, Iran, Vietnam, Cuba and Saudi Arabia. The unblocked websites included Reuters Chinese, BBC on China and German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
The response from the Chinese government, which became known as the “Great Cannon”, was a critical test for the idea of collateral freedom, says Meredith.
“They took all the Chinese traffic that was trying to come in, and put a mirror on it – so this is one billion people, a third of the internet – and instead of directing that to an internal website, they redirected all that traffic to GitHub, to Amazon, to Microsoft,” said Meredith. By directing this traffic to all the sites used by collateral freedom, the Chinese government were testing those service providers.
“It was just enough to raise all the flags and create a very public storm which created a further media event that said ‘China is blocking Amazon or blocking GitHub’ – at which point they stopped.”
The point of this, Meredith explains, is that the economic cost of blocking the big providers, this time, outweighed the Chinese government’s desire to censor the web. So if in the future, during a major election for example, the government might be tempted to block these sites. GreatFire showed the Chinese government, and the world, what it would cost.
“What it shows is possible is something GreatFire can really lay claim to. They showed that China could do this, would try to do it, that those companies could weather that storm, and that the balance is still there where millions of people are able to get online because of collateral freedom.”