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With New Android App, Chinese Netizens Can See What Their Gov't Wants to Suppress

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, April 30 2014

Weibo via @RichardBuangan

Last year, on the 24th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square Massacre, Chinese netizens uploaded doctored images of the iconic photograph of the “Tank Man,” with big yellow ducks or Angry Birds characters taking the place of the military vehicles. Searches for “big yellow duck” on the microblogging platform Sina Weibo were summarily censored, and individual images hand-deleted. It seems almost inevitable that something similar will flood the Chinese Internet this year, yet when and if it does, Chinese citizens will be able to use the Android app FreeWeibo to peruse deleted posts.

The app is a project by the activists behind GreatFire, an organization that monitors censorship in China. They have been tracking and publishing blocked and censored content on FreeWeibo.com for three years, but the new Android app makes accessing that information from within China significantly easier.

The hope is that FreeWeibo will stay online and accessible within China as a result of "collateral freedom," meaning by piggybacking on indispensable services that cannot be blocked without injuring China's economy. GreatFire also made the app available for download on sites other than the Google app store. In this case, FreeWeibo is hosted on the Amazon Web Services cloud, and everything in the cloud is encrypted. This makes it all but impossible to censor specific content unless China wants to shut down the entire service.

In an email to techPresident, the pseudonymous activist Charlie Smith wrote:

We expect that we are going to see a big boost in numbers leading up to June 4. There already seems to be far more activity this year to mark the 25th anniversary of the events of 1989 - the Tiananmen-related posts we have published on FreeWeibo have been widely shared. I think that this year more Chinese netizens will become aware of the censorship surrounding the Tiananmen incident and will be looking for ways to get around domestic censorship and the great firewall.

Smith reported that the app is currently used by 200 or so users per day, and that “the number is steadily rising.” More than 93 percent of users are from China, not including Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Last year GreatFire released FreeWeibo in the Apple app store, but the company blocked it. As Smith put it in the Free Weibo Android app email announcement: “But we were not able to sidestep Apple's evil karma zen opaque censorship policies (and their willingness to do anything for a China Mobile deal).”

The only potential risk for censorship, is if Amazon capitulates to China's demands to close GreatFire's AWS account.

As for GreatFire's plans for the future, Smith writes that they have spoken with media, civil society and private organizations in China on possibly creating apps for them, as well as civil society organizations in Pakistan, Turkey and Venezuela.

“As of today,” Smith says, “we have no concrete plans to extend our services to other countries but we are very much interested in doing so.”

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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