These Activists Are Plotting To End Internet Censorship In China

“I hope we put ourselves out of business,” said Charlie Smith, the pseudonymous head of Great Fire. And he was serious. After all this Chinese Internet monitoring watchdog is no ordinary case.

Started in 2011 by three anonymous individuals tired of China’s approach to the internet, it initially tracked the effects of the country’s censorship system on websites. Over time, it has risen to become perhaps the most trusted authority on the subject.

The Great Fire site itself is censorship database. Visitors to input a URL to determine if the website is blocked in China. It is available in English and Chinese, and periodically tests its collection of over 100,000 URLs to produce a history of the availability/restriction for each one. A hugely useful resource in its own right, GreatFire has come to mean a lot more than just checks. These days, the three founders document new instances of internet restrictions and foul play in China via the organization’s blog and @greatfirechina Twitter account.

Great Fire is regularly referenced by Reuters, The Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and other global media — including TechCrunch, of course. Stories it has dug up have included apparent attacks on Apple’s iCloud service, the blocking of Instagram and messaging apps, restrictions on Google services (of course) and — most recently — details of a man-in-the-middle attack on Microsoft Outlook users in China.

That’s made the site — and its founders — a go-to resource for media, activists and anyone with an interest in the internet in China.

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“In terms of blogging, we’ve amazed ourselves,” said Smith. Smith highlighted the recent Microsoft attack and the role that Great Fire played publicizing it.

The story began like many others with a post on the Great Fire blog. That was picked up by media which gave the finding a global platform and attention. Microsoft entered the scene when it confirmed that “a small number of customers [were] impacted by malicious routing to a server impersonating” — and suddenly what was initially a small discovery had become a topic in media across the world, China included.

“It got me thinking, if we weren’t around who would’ve exposed that? It’s a serious thing,” Smith said.

Collateral Freedom

Great Fire is an invaluable resource for Asia-based tech reporters, but blogging and retroactively documented censorship isn’t going to down the Great Firewall, as China’s internet censorship organ is known. For that, Smith and his fellow vigilantes have a more sophisticated plan of action that they call ‘Collateral Freedom’. It’s a concept that leverages cloud-based content networks to give blocked websites and services a new, unblocked lease of life in China.

Hosting a website on a service like Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Alibaba’s Aliyun cloud — Smith declined to say which services are used, but he did confirm that it is not reliant on a single vendor — is designed to make the decision to block it more complicated. While we don’t know the ins and outs of how China determines which websites to block, it is seemingly able to do so nearly at whim. Collateral Freedom adds a new layer of decision-making because it theoretically forces authorities to block all sites on the cloud service if they want to ban the contentious material in question. So, if Collateral Freedom is used to host a mirror on AWS, for example, a decision to block it will knock out other services that use AWS in China.

Great Fire is betting that China realizes that bringing down massive content delivery networks is not sensible, particularly when companies rely on them for staging websites and services, not to mention conducting business in the country generally.

“Collateral Freedom ties access to information to the Chinese economy,” Smith explained. “If [authorities] truly want to block access to this information, then they must give up certain access to economic freedoms.”

The government has taken action against many services used by Western businesses in China, including Google services, VPN providers and — most recently — popular security software service Avast. Smith previously told us that censorship had “become a serious business issue,” and Great Fire’s Collateral Freedom theory works on the basis that blocking companies that provide the Internet plumbing is a step too far — but, even if the hammer did fall on them, the resulting outcry would cause significant harm for China because it would raise awareness of censorship issues in the open, Smith argued.

“It’s going to be very difficult to block [Collateral Freedom sites] without causing a lot of economic damage. We just need more critical mass in terms of partners,” he added. “And we are also open sourcing the code so that people will be able to go and do it themselves.”

Existing sites that Great Fire has unblocked using this process include and the BBC News service, while it actively partnered with edgy Chinese news sites Boxun and China Digital Times to make them available despite censorship restrictions imposed on their regular websites.

Overseas Efforts

A new push to internationalize its efforts began this month, when Great Fire partnered with Reporters Without Borders to ‘unblock’ nine websites across 11 countries, including Russia and China. Great Fire previously considered expanding its efforts into other censorship affected countries, but instead it chose to open-source the basics for others to run with the ball. This allows its small team of volunteers to focus their efforts on China.

Collateral Freedom isn’t just about making websites accessible. Great Fire has released an Android app that uses the system to grant users access to blocked websites inside China without a VPN. We’ve confirmed with multiple contacts in China that the browser can be used to access Facebook, Twitter and other censored sites using a Chinese service provider.

The organization also runs Free Weibo, a firehose-like service that shows all messages posted to Weibo, bypassing the heavy censorship filter that its users on the service are typically subject to. Free Weibo is available on the web and via an Android app, Apple removed the iOS app from the App Store last year. The incident is a sour one for Great Fire, which maintains that the U.S. company acted on instructions from the government, thereby tacitly endorsing internet censorship. (That’s opposed to the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter, all of which have all been vocal opponents.)

The Attacks

It’s still early days for Collateral Freedom. Authorities made one drastic move to block a major content delivery networks that Collateral Freedom relies on. Verizon-owned Edgecast was blocked back in November, knocking out thousands of websites from China’s internet space in the process. Things heightened this month, however, when Great Fire suffered two massive DDOS attacks in the aftermath of a report from the Wall Street Journal that detailed the Collateral Freedom project.

The first attack, which began on March 17, sent 2.6 billion requests per hour at peak to Great Fire’s mirrored sites in an effort to seemingly take them offline via overwhelming traffic numbers. Suspicion may have fallen on Chinese authorities, but it was not clear exactly where the attack came from. It did, however threaten the organization because it sent its bandwidth costs with Amazon skyrocketing to $30,000 per day. It isn’t clear whether the bills have been settled — an Amazon representative did not reply to a request for comment on the matter.

No sooner had Great Fire stabilized itself following the attack, another emerged with equal strength and determination. This time a DDOS attack targeting the organization’s GitHub page — where the open sourced code to let anyone use Collateral Freedom is housed — and the GitHub page of its mirror site for the New York Times’ Chinese site, which was created following China’s block of the genuine NYT China website.

GitHub called it “the largest DDOS attack” in its history and, at the time of writing, it has been ongoing for four days. Security experts found that the attacker — which was again unknown — was hijacking internet traffic to send visitors to websites that contained scripts from Chinese search engine Baidu to the two pages.

“After a thorough investigation by our security team, we found no security breaches in Baidu and no evidence that we had been hacked. We’ve notified other security organizations and are working together to get to the bottom of this,” a Baidu spokesperson told TechCrunch, but further research — including reports published by Great Fire today — suggested that the attack had “weaponized” millions of internet users who were unknowingly conducting the DDOS attack.

Great Fire claims that third-party reports allow it to “confidently conclude that the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) is responsible for both of these attacks,” but that is based on patterns of attacks from the past and, as is so often the case with cyber attacks, there’s no indisputable piece of evidence to fully support that claim. Nonetheless, the sheer scale of the attack is quite staggering and many have assumed that is a factor that points to government involvement.

Regardless, Great Fire is sure of its attacker.

“Hijacking the computers of millions of innocent internet users around the world is particularly striking as it illustrates the utter disregard the Chinese authorities have for international as well as even Chinese internet governance norms. There was no way for an average internet user to prevent themselves from being exploited as part of this attack,” it said in a blog post.

Painted As Agitators

All three Great Fire founders have regular day jobs, which is pretty insane considering that their side project is devoted to tackling the world’s most prominent internet censorship regime. Clearly, then, their efforts require outside funding; Smith declined to reveal details of Great Fire’s backers, only saying that “people have supported us, a lot [of whom are] inside China.”

“We are funded by organizations that support a free Internet, in China and beyond,” Great Fire said on its website. The organization’s advisory board includes former CNN journalist and Global Voices founder Rebecca MacKinnon, high-profile Chinese blogger Isaac Mao, and James Vasile of the Open Internet Tools Project and the Software Freedom Law Center.

Since its inception in 2011, Great Fire has been a dogged and persistent critic of China, but it appeared to reach a milestone this January when it was acknowledged by the government for the first time.

Speaking to state media following the emergence of information regarding the attack on Outlook users, Jiang Jun, a member of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) which manages the internet in China, accused Great Fire of being “an anti-China website set up by an overseas anti-China organization.”

Jiang claimed the organization had timed its disclosure to coincide with a clean up of ‘harmful’ social media accounts on Weibo and popular messaging app WeChat. Great Fire’s goal was “aiming to incite dissatisfaction and to smear China’s cyberspace management system,” the official argued.

Great Fire hit back with an open letter to the head of the CAC. “We are not anti-China but we are anti-censorship in China,” the founders explained, and Smith echoed those comments to TechCrunch.

“We [three] all have close relations with China; we’re invested in this country — I love the place, we all love the place,” he said.

“We can be against the censorship and love the country… we don’t like it when they paint us in that manner,” he added. Later, however, he admitted that being called out in the media — Great Fire was mentioned on websites and video broadcasts in China — was actually a badge of honor, and a sign that the discussion around censorship is advancing.

Nonetheless, with the overall objective so high, this is not a relaxing side-project for the founding team.

“It’s really a full-time project [and] emotionally it can be difficult,” Smith explained. “It is not something I can talk about over beers with friends, for example.”

“Now 300 Co-Founders”

The past couple of weeks have been particularly stressful given the two attacks, Smith said, however there has been a silver lining. Smith claimed that Great Fire has seen incredible support from existing and new supporters.

“We we were non-stop talking to people [about our problems and possible solutions,]” he said. “We were three co-founders before, but now we’re 300. A lot of people and tech expertise that we didn’t have before is now at our fingertips. We can strengthen the mirrors and are going to get better and better at deflecting [attacks].”

That said, Smith did admit that internally there has been some debate about how Great Fire should present itself to the world. Many in the past have tried to quietly aid and abet censorship but keep a low profile and stay in the shadows to avoid attention. Great Fire, however, has been very public about what it is doing, with the idea that China would not take the ultimate sacrifice and cut off its Collateral Freedom sites and lose access to large chunks of the internet.

Smith admitted that the organization has received feedback in support of this in-your-face style, and also suggestions that it could tone things down and focus on being the enabler for media and other content companies that want to get their websites back up and running in China using mirror sites. Given the hostility that it has faced over the past week or so, and the not-backing-down and confrontational style that it carried since its birth, we don’t see the organization changing its attitude — which makes for interesting times since *someone* is trying very hard to bring down its efforts to subvert censorship in China.

Note: Due to an editing error, the original version of this story has been updated. Apologies for any confusion.