Decrypt Weibo: new tool promises a censorship-free Sina Weibo

great fireGreatFire.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.

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China 2013: What to expect from its tech giants in the Year of the Snake

chinese flagJust finished an interesting piece on what to expect from Chinese tech firms in 2013 so thought I’d précis the key points below.

To be honest as with any year end predictions to an extent there’s always more-of-the-same than anything else, and to that point there’ll be greater international expansion on the mobile handset front by ZTE, Huawei, Lenovo, and potentially TCL-Alcatel.

Aside from the big names, Canalys analyst Nicole Peng told me there could also be attempts by feature phone vendors like Gionee and K-Touch to make it overseas, claiming that the technical and business support offered by chipset companies like Qualcomm and MediaTek is making it easier than ever to break into new smartphone markets.

But away from hardware, what about China’s growing raft of web companies?

It would be easy to write a story saying “the Chinese are coming, look out Facebook, Twitter et al!”, but the honest truth is that the likes of Tencent, Sina, Alibaba and others have become successful in China in part by copying their US rivals and in part thanks to local restrictions banning their rivals.

Where they have done well is in localising their platforms for the domestic user – something Alibaba and Baidu are doing now even for their mobile OS platforms – and innovating on top of what has gone before.

Aside from the odd service like Tencent’s WeChat which has managed to cross the Great Firewall to acceptance elsewhere, I’m sceptical that these firms will expand successfully in 2013, and to an extent, with less than half of the vast Chinese population online, there’s probably enough untapped growth left domestically to keep them busy for now.

Peng is slightly more optimistic, however.

“Many of the local mobile services/applications we have seen in China, such as Tencent Weixin, Sina Weibo provide great user experience and innovative features that we could not find from the international big name,” she told me.

“As long as they continue to innovate and own their IPs, I do not see Chinese internet companies having any major disadvantages in competing, as mobile services become device/OS agnostic in the future.”

Perhaps. But with local incumbents like Twitter, Facebook, Google et al, mature Western markets will certainly be too tough a nut to crack.

On top of this, Chinese tech firms will have to put up with increasingly hostile attitudes from various national governments.

National security concerns will continue to dog Huawei and ZTE on the telecoms infrastructure front, and there are signs that US regulators may soon begin the process of de-registering Chinese firms from US stock markets for failing to comply with domestic securities laws.

Oh, and there’s the small matter of a potential conflict over that bunch of barren rocks known as Diaoyu/Senkaku.

Plenty to look forward to, then, in 2013!