A great workaround for China's 'Great Firewall'?

The 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square has provoked a particularly harsh and extended Internet crackdown in China. Now one group says it has found a reliable way to defeat the censors.

Ng Han Guan/AP/File
Web pages from Chinese web giant Sina.com's site are displayed on a computer in Beijing.

At politically sensitive moments such as last week’s 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, Chinese government censors always crack down especially hard on the Internet, for fear of the uses to which opponents might put it.

This year the censors have been unprecedentedly harsh. Ten days after the anniversary, when Internet users had expected restrictions to ease off, Google services such as Gmail and search remain almost completely blocked in mainland China.

But in a new outbreak of the guerrilla war that Internet activists have been waging against what they call “The Great Firewall,” one foreign group has found what they say is a foolproof way to defeat Chinese censors.

Never have Google sites been so comprehensively blocked for so long, says Charlie Smith, founder of the group, Greatfire.org, that tracks Internet censorship in China and works to end it. “This is pretty major.”

A spokesman for the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which oversees Internet censorship, did not answer a request for an explanation of the block on Google services.

Google spokesmen have also refused to comment beyond saying that the company has detected no problems at its end.

Google shut its mainland China search page in 2010, saying that it would not comply with government requirements that it self-censor its content. Since then, users have been directed to the company’s Hong Kong site, but searching for politically sensitive words has always triggered automatic censorship tools that suspend a user’s connection for 90 seconds.

Mr. Smith (a pseudonym) says Greatfire.org has now made Google search accessible to any Internet user in China by creating a mirror site and putting it up on Amazon Cloud Services.

Since Amazon Cloud is encrypted, says Smith, Chinese censors can block sites on it only by blocking all access to the Amazon Cloud, wholesale. Many major domestic and foreign companies in China use Amazon Cloud Services, which Greatfire.org hopes will dissuade the authorities from making it impossible to access.

“Our bet is that the government would not dare shut it down because that would have a negative effect on too many important firms,” says Smith.

Google is aware of this new workaround but spokesman Taj Meadows would make no comment on it. Smith said his group was not working in cooperation with Google.

After a week in existence, Greatfire.org’s site is attracting about 110,000 searches a day – a tiny number compared to the 620 million Internet users in China, but an indication that it is attracting attention. Posts on Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform, that publicized the site’s address (sinaapp.co) were the most commonly censored messages on Thursday, suggesting that the authorities are anxious that the news should not spread.

Those that have heard the news and who go to the site can type in, for example, Tiananmen – a banned search word in China; at the top of the results page are three versions of the iconic tank man photo that have never been published in China.

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