Outrunning China's Web Cops

Outrunning China's Web Cops

ISSUE DATE: February 20, 2006

The simplicity of DIT's approach belies its effectiveness. The company distributes software, called FreeGate, which disguises the sites a person visits. In addition, DIT sends out mass e-mails to Chinese Web surfers for clients such as VOA, which is banned in China. The e-mails include a handful of temporary Web addresses that host off-limits content and springboards to other forbidden sites.

Keeping one step ahead of the censors is what this game is all about. China's cybercops are so efficient that these gateways typically stay open for only 72 hours, according to Ken Berman, an information technology director at the State Dept.-affiliated International Broadcasting Bureau, which hired DIT and UltraReach to help make VOA's Web content available in China.

Yet despite being outmanned and outspent -- Xia has a tiny staff, an annual budget of about $1 million, and relies mainly on volunteers -- DIT's customers say it has been remarkably successful. Xia's staff monitors the success rate of the hundreds of thousands of e-mails they send out each day. If one gets bounced back, the language must be scoured and the offending words detected and added to the company's blacklist. Workarounds are often developed, much like spammers finding holes in a corporate e-mail filter. For instance, an e-mail that contains "VOA" might get squelched, but one with a zero substituted for the "O" could get through.

As Google and other U.S. search companies increasingly cooperate with Beijing, DIT is helping the groups like HRIC break through the firewall. Before Google began censoring its results in China in January, HRIC appeared in the top three search results. Although China's Google users would have had difficulty accessing the HRIC sites, which are blocked, they at least knew they existed. Today they don't appear at all in China. But thanks to DIT and others, visitors to its Chinese-language newsletter spiked to more than 160,000 in January, up sixfold in the past 18 months. Says Xia: "If information isn't available on the Internet, it might as well not exist."

Every time something momentous happens in China -- and Beijing smothers news about it -- more people use his software, Xia says. In 2003, when the SARS epidemic peaked and Chinese authorities seemed to be withholding information, the number of DIT users spiked by 50%, he says -- and they doubled after reports surfaced in December that Guangdong police had shot protesting villagers.

Such moments invigorate Xia, making the effort worthwhile. And by the looks of things, the
services he and his peers provide will be in demand for quite a while to come.