Chinese censorship circumventors GreatFire launch funding campaign is creating projects that expand online freedom of speech in China

03 Apr 2018

GreatFire are the 2016 Digital Activism Fellow

In a speech given this past February at an invitation-only Index event, Index 2016 Digital Awards Fellow GreatFire asked the audience whether “the global internet is bringing free speech, or is China bringing censorship to the global internet?”

Trying to do its part in bringing free speech to Chinese internet users, the anonymous nonprofit recently launched its Patreon crowdfunding campaign on March 30.

In the wake of the March National People’s Congress, which swept away presidential term limits, and Apple’s deal to have state-owned enterprise Guizhou-Cloud Big Data (GCBD) host its data, the fight against Chinese censorship is facing an uncertain future.

“Xi Jinping wants to make sure that all criticism, at home and abroad, can be silenced,” said Charlie Smith, GreatFire co-founder.

Apple is helping Xi Jinping and the Communist Party do just that, according to Smith. In the February speech, GreatFire said, “China’s Communist Party has surprised everyone by becoming experts at censorship technology.”

Smith wouldn’t be surprised if “Apple shared private user information about Apple customers outside of China with the Chinese authorities, in cases where those users may be ‘stirring up trouble’ against China.”

GreatFire’s February speech also cited that “when pressured by a letter from two US senators last year, Apple admitted to having censored more than 700 apps just in the VPN category.”

Apple is working hand-in-hand with the Chinese authorities to implement censorship, not just in China, but around the world,” said Smith. “At the moment, this mainly affects Chinese [customers] but the writing is on the wall – all Apple customers will soon find that it will become increasingly more difficult and perhaps impossible to access negative information about the ruling Communist Party and party officials.”

However, Smith hopes other big-name companies like Google will re-enter China’s market without having to censor and not follow Apple’s footsteps. In 2010, Google shut down its operations after Chinese human-rights activists had their Gmails hacked, and the company has yet to come back.

Google has the technical know-how, the expertise and the money to be able to offer an uncensored version of its search engine to an audience in China,” said Smith. “Google has the power to offer a 100% uncensored service to China’s 700 million plus internet users. If we can do it, they can do it.”

The February speech also noted that following Google’s departure, “the vast majority of Chinese internet users exclusively use domestic services that are completely controlled by the Communist Party.”

If Google were to re-enter the market without censoring itself, it would destroy “a firewall that is preventing more than 700 million people from freely accessing information [and] would be the most important development in the history since the development of the internet itself,” said Smith.

Unlike his optimism for Google, Smith wishes China had lost Apple to Chinese censorship instead of it mixing its business with GCBD.

Apple will likely not share transparency reports about requests that the Chinese authorities are making for private information,” said Smith. “People who get detained by the authorities for ‘stirring up trouble,’ which is a common, catch-all description for those who express their displeasure about anything related to the Communist Party, may not even know that they ended up in detention because Apple shared their private information with the authorities.”

With the stage set for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, journalists, tourists and athletes will be hitting China’s Great Firewall “if companies and individuals do not stand up to [China’s] censorship,” said Smith, adding that “the situation will only get worse.”

Unable to fund its operations directly from Chinese users because of official  intimidation, GreatFire’s Patreon launch looks to individuals for financial help, hopefully shifting itself away from reliance on funding organisations.

Because “most internet freedom funding is for shiny new things,” GreatFire is utilizing Patreon to fund its ongoing projects and not new ones, said Smith. Patreon, a member-subscription platform to generate funds for content creators, will allow GreatFire to maintain its existing sites and continue to combat China’s Great Firewall.

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Sarah Wu

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