China’s head honcho when it comes to censorship recently stepped down. This being China, no-one seems to know whether he was effectively sacked, or asked to move to a new bigger and better role. But what we do know is that things aren’t going to get any better for those inside the Great Firewall.
Over the past three years, Lu Wei has been a constant thorn in the side of rights groups, diplomats and Silicon Valley bosses. His aggressive defence of China’s sovereign right to do with its internet what it sees fit – most notably at the laughably titled World Internet Conference in Wuzhen – has been jarring at times. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) he headed up also runs root CA and .cn operator the Chinese Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). As such, it was blamed by Google last year for issuing unauthorized TLS certificates for several of its domains, which were subsequently used in man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks.
Even more damning, the CAC was accused of launching Man in the Middle attacks on Outlook users last year in response to its migration to HTTPS, which the authorities can’t monitor. And then it was pegged for a DDoS attack on anti-censorship organisation Greatfire.org – a constant thorn in the side of the authorities in Beijing.
I spoke to Greatfire.org co-founder Charlie Smith about the reasons for and implications of Lu’s departure.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? We probably just had the quietest anniversary of Tiananmen [Square massacre] yet, in terms of online dissent and discussion. There is more censorship in general. Less circumvention because of a crackdown on VPNs. And fewer foreign companies are trying to challenge the status quo,” he told me via email.
“We know controlling the medium is pretty near the top of [president] Xi Jinping’s agenda. So why make a change now? The timing likely indicates that this was a planned and not a rash decision. There was no need to unsettle things before the 4 June anniversary and the change happens well before the next ‘World’ Internet Conference in Wuzhen.”
Smith went on to argue that, even though Lu presided over an unprecedented crack down on internet freedom – primarily through a new regulation banning the spread of “rumours” online – he didn’t go far enough.
“Lu was not perfect. As we have shown, it is impossible to completely block all information for those inside China,” Smith continued. “Maybe in this regard, Lu was being blamed and Xi decided he wanted somebody who can get the job done. Maybe Xi was upset about being ‘vilified as a murder suspect’ and could not comprehend why Lu Wei was unable to scrub information from the Chinese internet.”
Lu’s removal, if that is what it was, may also have been an attempt by Xi at curbing his growing influence – after all, propaganda is at the heart of the Party’s power and everyone inside knows it. His replacement, Xu Lin, is a Xi Jinping acolyte and one time deputy secretary of Tibet’s Shigatse Prefecture who will certainly toe the presidential line.
As Smith put it, “if Xu Lin fails to quell ‘rumours and slander’ Xi does not have to second-guess whether or not Xu is doing everything within his power to stop these attacks.”
So what prospects for the future? Pretty grim if you’re inside China and are a fan of human rights and internet freedom.
Beijing was one of a few countries – Russia, India, Indonesia included – that voted against a non-binding resolution at the UN this week stating all individuals must be afforded the same rights online as offline and that the universal right to freedom of expression should be upheld online.
As Smith said, if Xu Lin “handles information control on the Chinese internet the same way the authorities handle information control in Tibet then the situation could even get worse.”
There is some hope for businesses and individuals which need to leap the Great Firewall.
The hope is that it will encourage greater use of VPNs and help developers improve their circumvention products, as well as provide a much needed additional source of revenue for Greatfire.
The concern is that if it gets popular enough, Beijing will do all it can to put it out of action.
On Thursday Baidu made a pretty major announcement in the mobile apps space which wasn’t covered in a lot of detail by the international press, but I reckon this one could be a biggie for developers everywhere in time.
Light App is Baidu’s answer to what CEO Robin Li described as a “fundamentally flawed” app store system, whereby less than 0.1 per cent of apps account for 70 per cent of downloads.
It’s bad for the user and it’s bad for the developers ultimately, as not many can practically and efficiently reach large number of content consumers.
No problem, says Baidu. Alongside your basic mobile app, simply design a web app which can run on Light App and it will be made available to users hassle free, without the need for download and install, via a Baidu service.
Logging into Light App, users can search for ‘new apartments’, for example, and it will call up all the apps that may fit the bill – ie ones offering local listings and alerts. They may never have found these apps otherwise and certainly would use them so infrequently as to not warrant the hassle of downloading them.
It might seem a bit rich for Baidu, which has just spent $1.9bn on buying app store firm 91 Wireless, to complain about flawed app stores, but what it’s trying to do does make sense, and can be seen as another attempt by the firm to gain another foothold in China’s lucrative mobile internet.
It’s still very early days for this one, and success or failure will depend on how the developer community takes to it, but I reckon it could be particularly useful in time for devs outside the Great Firewall.
Baidu has been taking baby steps with engagement with non-Chinese devs in recent months and if Light App resources are eventually made available in English, it could be a real boon – helping otherwise virtually undiscoverable applications reach the attention of Chinese users.
Mark Natkin, MD of Beijing-based consultancy Marbridge Consulting reckons so too. He told me the following:
I think the new Light App platform should be beneficial to all developers, both domestic and foreign, in that it makes it easier for users to try an app without having to download and install it, allows users to search for apps not only by the app’s name but also by its content (which improves the ability of long-tail searches to find the type of app that most closely matches the user’s needs), and allows apps to more easily integrate a variety of functionality developed and provisioned by Baidu (like voice input, etc.).