All firewalls have some holes in them, even the Great Firewall of China, the online censorship system that the Chinese government uses to block sites it deems inappropriate for its citizens.
A group of Internet activists has apparently found a way to circumvent the Great Firewall to unblock Reuters’ Chinese-language website, which was censored on Friday. The site is now accessible in China through a mirror site, launched on Sunday by a group of activists called GreatFire.
Reuters is now hosted on a mirror — a site that has the same content as the original, but has a different domain address — which is hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS). The group also plans on hosting a second mirror on Google‘s Cloud Storage.
Neither of these services are blocked in China, so Chinese netizens who know the mirror sites’ address can still read the Chinese version of Reuters even though the actual site is blocked.
The activists behind GreatFire, which was founded in 2011 to protest China’s online censorship by listing all blocked websites, launched the mirror site in response to the government’s more recent blocking of the Chinese versions of both Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.
“We were really upset by the news on Friday of these two blocks,” Charlie Smith, one of the co-founders of GreatFire, who’s using a pseudonym, told Mashable. “And we thought, well, we can do something about it. So we did it.“
The activists admit this circumvention initiative is not perfect. Chinese users still have to find the exact URL of the mirror site to access it, and GreatFire’s own website is blocked in China too. But they decided to launch it anyway, even if the mirror has some bugs, in what Smith defined as a “symbolic” action.
“We wanted to quickly put this together so that we could fire a shot across the bow of the Chinese censorship mothership,” read GreatFire’s blog post announcing the mirror sites. The post was titled: “Look Ma! I can see through the Great Firewall.”
“The reason why we chose to mirror the Reuters Chinese website was to show the authorities and Chinese Internet users that there are holes in the Great Firewall,” the activists added.
The activists launched several mirror sites and all were taken down quickly except for the one hosted on Amazon, Smith told Mashable.
That one is still up, Smith explained, because the Chinese government would have to block the domains of Amazon Web Services entirely just to take down the mirror site.
This same strategy is working with another GreatFire initiative, FreeWeibo, a mirror site that shows content blocked or censored on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site. The group first registered FreeWeibo.com to host the censored content, but the Chinese government quickly blocked access to the site.
But the group says they’re still getting 15,000 views on it each day, mostly from Chinese netizens using circumvention tools. “FreeWeibo is also getting 300 daily unique [visitors] from both Amazon and Google’s mirrors,” Smith said. The site has been mirrored on AWS and Google’s cloud since Nov. 6.
The mirrored Reuters site was launched without notifying the media company, as the group acknowledges in the blog post, adding that if Reuters asks them to remove the site, they “will do so immediately.”
Barb Burg, a Reuters spokesperson, told Mashable that the company is “aware of the site,” and is “reviewing the matter,” but she declined to offer any further comment. If they launch the mirror site on Google as well, Reuters would have to flag the site and ask Google to remove it using the search giant’s takedown submission request platform. Google declined to comment on the issue, and Amazon didn’t respond to our inquiry.
Smith and another co-founder, who calls himself Martin Johnson, don’t use their real names because they “all have close ties to China.” They want to protect themselves and their families, Smith told Mashable in an online chat.
“We want to get the job done — we don’t want to end up in a Chinese jail — we need our Chinese relationships to make this work,” he explained. “We want to bring an end to online censorship in China.“
They hope that circumventing the Great Firewall by offering a mirrored version of Reuters will convince China’s president to stop online censorship in the country entirely.
“Mr. Xi Jinping, we hope you are listening. Just let this episode slide. Pretend it did not happen. Do nothing to stop this,” the activists entreated in the blog post. “Or, better yet, lift the block on these two websites and the hundreds of others. Do it in one swift movement. You will catch everybody off guard. And you will create your own lasting legacy as a true reformer.”
UPDATE, Nov. 19, 10.21 a.m.: The Reuters mirror site has received more than 2,300 visits from China, Smith told Mashable.
This story has been amended to reflect the fact that GreatFire only launched one mirror site for now, on Amazon Web Services. The mirror site on Google Cloud Storage isn’t live yet.
Image: Chris Hondros/Getty Images