The large scale protests in Hong Kong have triggered a massive online censorship crackdown, according to activists who monitor Chinese state control of the Internet.
“We’re seeing levels of censorship that are about two to ten times the normal level of censorship,” said a man going by the pseudonym Charlie Smith. CBC is protecting his identity over concerns for his safety.
Smith said the most sensitive event on the calendar is usually the June 4th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.
“We are seeing levels that are about twice as high as what was happening this past June,” he said in an interview with Brent Bambury, host of CBC Radio’s Day 6.
This image of a protester in Hong Kong was deleted
from China’s largest social network, Sina Weibo.
Smith is part of a group of activists who operate GreatFire.org, a website that unblocks censored online information and makes it accessible to people in China. The activists have unblocked sites like Google and Sina Weibo, often called China’s Twitter, one of the most heavily trafficked social media properties in the country.
“What we do is we go to Weibo and we check what people are posting and then we go back a little bit later and we check again and we compare…whatever is missing we determine is censored, we restore all of those censored posts and we post them onto our own website which we call FreeWeibo.com.”
The whole system hinges on a clever cost benefit analysis that Smith says forces China to choose between shutting down his free information movement and disrupting international commerce.
“The Internet has grown in China and Chinese businesses have expanded globally and a lot of Chinese companies use foreign hosting services, or cloud hosting services, to deliver their websites. The most famous company is Amazon Web Services, for example. So what we do is when we unblock websites we leverage those services to deliver those unblocked websites back into China. Now those websites are all encrypted, meaning they protect the communication that happens between the user and the website.
In order for the Chinese to actually block access to say, our free Google website, they would have to block access to the entire cloud service that it’s hosted on. Meaning that it would damage the hosting services for a bunch of other companies, people and perhaps even government websites.”
According to Weiboscope, a censorship-monitoring programme at the University of Hong Kong, censorship on September 28th — the most intense day of protest — hit an all-time high on the microblogging site Sina Weibo: 15 out of every 1000 posts were deleted.
If one of your posts were among those deleted, Smith and his fellow activists offer a service that allows people to get their blocked information back.
“If you are reading your own timeline and you see a missing tweet in your timeline you can actually come to our site, enter in the time stamp and recover that deleted message.”
Smith believes that what he’s doing could come at a personal risk to his safety.
This aerial image of the protests in Hong Kong was
deleted from China’s largest social network, Sina Weibo.
“I’m using a pseudonym, we protect our identity we mask all of our activity and we take great care to make sure we are not discovered…We are not endearing ourselves to the Chinese authorities in any way. This is not what they want to happen.”
As for why he hasn’t yet been shut down himself?
“Maybe we are just, as the Chinese would say, a small potato. So not big enough for the authorities to really pay attention to. The second reason might be that our approach is actually working. Without getting into too many details, our approach is to basically leave China with one of two choices, either they end online censorship or they create the “Chinternet” or the Chinese Internet and cut themselves off from the global Internet. And our bet is that China will make the latter choice because there is just so much riding on integration with the rest of the world economically.”