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How Chinese Internet users are climbing a bigger, badder Great Firewall

Don’t take the open Internet for granted.

Humankind’s most advanced censorship regime, China’s Great Firewall, is more powerful than ever.

In 2015, the country’s crackdown on Internet freedoms reached unprecedented size and intensity, prompting a rising fraction of the country’s 715 million netizens to search for new ways to climb over the Great Firewall and into the free Internet.

Hundreds of thousands of Chinese are now turning to software like Lantern and FreeBrowser, two United States government-funded tools that effectively hide Internet traffic from the Great Firewall’s reach.

A surge in Chinese users hit Lantern this year after Chinese authorities launched an unprecedented censorship war that targeted both the technology and its users.

“We get a constant outpouring of thank yous from Chinese and Iranian users.” 

The online offensive included the debut of the Great Cannon, a tool used by the Chinese government to redirect an overwhelming bombardment of Web traffic at political opponent’s of Beijing’s censorship.

The fight to control speech in China also went offline, where Chinese police knocked on doors for the first time ever to threaten programmers with jail if they continued building software to beat the Great Firewall. The result sent prominent programmers into “online hiding,” according to Charlie Smith of GreatFire.org, a nonprofit that provides access to blocked content inside China, and left a deafening silence from some of China’s most important hackers.

One notable casualty was Shadowsocks, a powerful censorship circumvention tool used by hundreds of thousands of Chinese every day. It was deleted from the Web earlier this year, after authorities threatened its original creator, a programmer known as clowwindy.

While he wishes to one day “live in a country where I have freedom to write any code I like without fearing [the government],” clowwindy said, he was monitored closely by police after the threats and deletion, according to a source close to the situation who requested anonymity. It’s not clear whether government monitoring of clowwindy continues today.

The Great Firewall is now defeating a host of once-popular virtual private networks, proxies, and even powerful Western-built anonymity tools that work effectively to beat censorship and surveillance in much of the rest of the world. Some, however, still provide a ladder to the outside.

Lantern

In the censored corners of the Web, Chinese citizens trade news on how to access a free Internet—to climb over the Great Firewall.

In the moments after the deletion of Shadowsocks, Lantern skyrocketed in popularity on GitHub, a site that hosts code for programmers.

Over 280,000 Chinese now use Lantern on a monthly basis. Even though Chinese citizens make up about 80 percent of Lantern’s total users, its spread is all word-of-mouth.

“In China, we’ve done literally zero marketing,” according Adam Fisk, Lantern’s Chief Technical Officer. “And obviously our website is blocked in China, so we have no idea how it’s changed.”

Visiting Chinese forums and chat rooms shows exactly how word spreads quickly. On one censored forum dedicated to “climbing over the wall,” the top post lists the current status of Firewall-circumvention tools.

The famous Tor anonymity network is slow and unstable in China, I2P moves at a crawl, XX-Net suffers interference, and many virtual private networks have been blocked since the beginning of this year.

Lantern is fast, stable, and responsive, the Chinese netizens say. So they recommend and use it enthusiastically.

Lantern’s roots go back to 2013, when Fisk, formerly an engineer at the file-sharing service Limewire, used his expertise in peer-to-peer technology to beat censorship in a novel way: Allowing people outside the censor’s grasp to connect with a Chinese or Iranian person, giving them an uncensored view of the Internet.

In response to the agile and powerful Great Firewall, the technical innards of Lantern have evolved and adapted regularly since its 2013 launch to incorporate additional options like direct proxies to bounce Internet traffic and tunneling to disguise it. Redundancies help evade automated censors.

FreeBrowser

GreatFire, which collaborates with Lantern, also produces a mobile browser called FreeBrowser that’s rapidly attracted over 120,000 monthly users after a March 2015 launch, according to Charlie Smith of GreatFire.org.

“Our browser is a little bit different,” Smith told the Daily Dot. “We started as an activist organization, and we still are. What we’ve done on FreeBrowser is have the start page contain contents ordinarily blocked in China. So we’re promoting normally blocked content and directing people to things we think they’ll be interested in, most of it from an activist point-of-view.”

“In China, we’ve done literally zero marketing.”

Chinese netizens who successfully climb over the Firewall often seek guidance in the wider, uncensored Internet. Popular sites like ?????? ask, “So you’ve climbed over the Firewall, now what?” Activists answer with a long directory of websites like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Chinese-language news media, all of which are censored inside China.

GreatFire receives funding from individual donors as well as Western governments like the Netherlands and the U.S. State Department.

Smith and GreatFire push a method they call “collateral freedom” in which they leverage the global content delivery networks (CDN) that bring Internet traffic to China in a way that delivers banned content to the country.

“We’re doing it in a way where we force authorities to make a choice,” Smith explained. “[They] either have to let content come in through global CDN or block the CDN, which would block 55 percent of the world’s Internet, including any kind of [government] websites using CDNs like e-commerce, banking, corporate websites—a lot. 

“We believe Chinese authorities would not take that step to block 55 percent of world’s Internet both because they see it would cause economic damage and because people would become more aware of censorship. So far it’s proven correct.”

The Chinese testing ground

From the censor’s point-of-view, China is a role-model system.

In the past six years, 324 million Chinese have connected to the Internet for the first time—that’s more than the entire population of the U.S., which has the second most Internet users. 

Countries like Iran emulate the technology used to inspect Internet traffic and surveil the population in China. No other nation has the tools to so closely surveil and police an online population that will likely top 1 billion by the end of the decade.

From a netizen’s point of view, the Chinese people have been a model as well.

“We’re promoting normally blocked content and directing people to things we think they’ll be interested in, most of it from an activist point-of-view.”

By facing off against the world’s most advanced censorship, China is a proving ground for circumvention software. If you can beat censors in Shanghai, you might be able to beat ‘em anywhere.

Even though Lantern and FreeBrowser are built specifically for China, netizens in countries like Iran have adopted them on word-of-mouth that’s crossing three languages and international borders.

Tor is the most famous and widely successful anonymization network, but its success in China has been uneven at best.

Even so, Tor attracts thousands of Chinese to use its network in a multitude of ways. Increasingly, Chinese-language sites are showing up on the Dark Net, where one can witness conversations between pro-independence Taiwanese and mainlanders to sales of stolen credit cards for bitcoins. However, the vast majority of Chinese seeking to get around the Firewall’s censorship do it to access the same uncensored Web the Western world sees every day.

The numbers are undeniably small. Of the 715 million Chinese Internet users subject to the Great Firewall’s restrictions—most of whom are new to the Net and only use it on mobile phones—less than 1 percent are circumventing the Chinese government’s rules.

The relative few who do manage to climb over the Great Firewall, however, are extraordinarily grateful for the opportunity.

“We get a constant outpouring of thank yous from Chinese and Iranian users,” Lantern’s Fisk told the Daily Dot. 

“One Chinese user said, ‘It’s so good to take a breath through Lantern.’ If you’re living in these countries it’s essentially suffocating to not have access to information we [in the West] take for granted.”

Illustration by Bruno Moraes

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Patrick Howell O'Neill

Patrick Howell O'Neill is a notable cybersecurity reporter whose work has focused on the dark net, national security, and law enforcement. A former senior writer at the Daily Dot, O'Neill joined CyberScoop in October 2016. I am a cybersecurity journalist at CyberScoop. I cover the security industry, national security and law enforcement.