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.
First of all, the app market will see an ever-tightening regulatory regime following new regulations passed in October, according to co-founder Percy Alpha.
“I fear that in the future, apps will be like websites, i.e you have to get a license before publishing any,” he told me by email.
Then there’s the current trend for Man in the Middle attacks as a way to monitor and block access to various online services and sites.
The Great Firewall has already tried this tactic on Google, Yahoo and iCloud to name but three. It’s the only way the authorities can see what people are up to once a site switches to HTTPS.
The smart money is apparently on more of these attacks in 2015, but increasingly focused on smaller sites so as to not arouse much media attention.
The Chinese authorities have also been going after Greatfire itself of late, proof the anti-censorship group must be doing something right.
Their mirrored sites, which allow users behind the Great Firewall view blocked content, have been a minor irritant to the authorities until now. But since last week Beijing upped the ante in two astonishing moves against the content delivery networks (CDNs) Greatfire uses.
The first resulted in EdgeCast losing all service in China – which could mean tens of thousands of sites affected. Then another swipe took out an Akamai subdomain also used by HSBC. The result? Its corporate banking services became unavailable. It just shows the lengths the Party is prepared to go to control the flow of information.
The last word goes to co-founder Charlie Smith:
“I think we will continue to see the kinds of crackdown we have seen this past year. I think that for a long time, many optimists have said, give the authorities some time, restrictions will loosen up and information will flow more freely. If anything, the exact opposite is happening – I’m not sure why people seem to make comments otherwise.
If anything, I think the authorities will take censorship too far in 2015. They will push the Chinese over the limit of what they are willing to tolerate.”
GreatFire.org, a not-for-profit calling for an end to China’s repressive censorship regime, has launched another tool designed to bring transparency to the Chinternet and no doubt some consternation in Beijing.
I covered the Decrypt Weibo announcement over at The Register. It pretty much does what it says on the tin, allowing users who see a post on Sina Weibo that has been blocked by the censors, to retrieve that message.
The founders of GreatFire have been mapping the censored Chinese internet for over two years now and last year launched FreeWeibo, a tool which allows users to conduct uncensored searches of Sina Weibo – by far China’s biggest weibo platform.
However their work so far seems to have flown under the radar, which probably comes down simply to user numbers.
“We’ve been operating FreeWeibo.com now for almost a year and they have not done anything to try to block that service,” co-founder Charlie Smith told me. “It may be that we are just a small blip on their radar. But we think that we are making things difficult for them and we are going to continue to makes things difficult.”
The big worry for internet freedom advocates is that China’s latest attempts to suppress online free speech have edged the closest yet to an Orwellian “thought police” model.
In attaching severe jail terms to any popular online message subsequently deemed to be a harmful “rumour”, the government will slowly and insidiously create a nation where all but the bravest are afraid to say anything mildly controversial online, for fear of reprisals.
That’s the worry anyway, as GreatFire alludes to in its post explaining the launch of Decrypt Weibo, although it’s good to hear that Smith and his team are undimmed in their fight.
“Sina’s likely reaction to our new service will be to inform the authorities about our presence … and put the matter in the hands of the police. The police won’t find us and won’t be able to shut us down which means that they would have to shut down the entire Sina Weibo service to stop us doing what we are doing. This would lead to a massive public outcry,” he said.
“Of course, we hope that they just decide to end online censorship voluntarily.”
In the end, the only way this could happen is if the Communist Party realised that its demand for indigenous innovation-based economic growth (rather than one reliant on copying and stealing IP) is doomed if it continues to suppress debate online and place such a heavy burden on web companies for self-policing their platforms.
Unfortunately I don’t think this will happen anytime soon, so in the meantime let’s hope Decrypt Weibo finds its way into the hands of as many Chinese netizens that need it as possible.