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 Whistleblowers Need Protection



By Shiyu Zhou, Ph.D.
Deputy Director, Global Internet Freedom Consortium
Forum on Human Rights in China
214 Wellington Building, Parliament Buildings, Ottawa
May 27, 2009

Information control can cost lives. In China, news of disasters, epidemics, and other health scares is still carefully controlled or even suppressed, at great risk not only to the health and safety of its populace but increasingly to the rest of the world. For instances, when the Chinese leadership chose to suppress news of the SARS outbreak in 2003, the virus spread far beyond China’s borders to places like Toronto and San Francisco, causing the death of at least several hundred in and outside of China and almost a global pandemic. The Chinese authorities received parents’ complaints about the tainted milk months before the Beijing Olympics last year. But millions of Chinese babes kept drinking the tainted milk that led to kidney stones without any warning as the Communist Party wanted to maintain “social stability” for its political image at the Games at the expense of people’s lives.

The lack of information freedom in closed societies not only is coupled with severe violations of human rights, but also puts the democratic nations at risk as information control in closed societies is often used for manipulation and indoctrination, and sometimes even used to whip up anti-democracy sentiment.

The Internet is a vast, fast, and inexpensive way to access information and to communicate. It has become the greatest hope for global information freedom and democratization. The number of Internet users worldwide has soared. In China alone, the number of Internet users has increased by 10 times since 2000 and reached 298 million as of the end of 2008. While authorities in closed societies can easily shut down newspapers, block TV channels, jam short-wave radios, and ban books, the Internet is far more elusive. With the proper anti-censorship technologies, users in closed societies can access uncensored information online freely and without fear of reprisal. Here, anti-censorship, also called anti-blocking or anti-jamming, refers to technical means that protect users in closed societies from being blocked, monitored, or tracked online.

The Censorship in China

The Chinese authorities started the Internet censorship as soon as the Internet became popularized in the Chinese society in the mid 90’s. The battle over the Internet has become intensified since 1999 when the Internet usage started booming in China and, in particular, after the suppression of Falun Gong started.

The Internet censorship in China is related to the suppression of Falun Gong for a reason. On April 25th, 1999, over 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners showed up at State Council Appeal Office outside of the Chinese leadership compound Zhongnanhai to appeal to the central government to release the practitioners illegally beaten and arrested in Tianjin, and allow practitioners to peacefully practice their personal belief without interference. This incident irritated the Party leader Jiang Zemin at that time, who initiated the Falun Gong suppression three months later. As the Chinese authorities prepared for the crackdown on Falun Gong, they found through Internet postings at that time that many practitioners who went to Zhongnanhai on April 25th learned about the incident through the Internet, and a large number of practitioners in the country actually used the Internet as their major ways of communication and information sharing. Consequently, on July 20th, 1999, when the Falun Gong suppression started, one of the very first steps taken by the Chinese authorities besides arresting key coordinators, was to take down all the Falun Gong websites in China and block all such websites outside of China.

The first paramount leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Mao Zedong, once said the following that has become the motto for the Party: if we Chinese Communist Party want to stay in power, we need to control two things – one is the gun, the other is the pen. That’s why the Chinese Communist Party has been employing violence as well as propaganda-plus-censorship in every one of its suppressions over the past 60 years of its ruling, whether the suppression is on Tiananmen students, Falun Gong, or Tibetans.

Since the Falun Gong suppression started, the Chinese authorities sped up its construction of the multi-billion-dollar Golden Shield Project with the help of Western companies. Golden Shield is an integration of a gigantic online database system and a vast surveillance network. It is the host project of the so-called Great Firewall that is being used to monitor and control the Internet usage in China. According to Washington Post, it was revealed in a Cisco internal document that one of the three major objectives of China’s Golden Shield Project is to “combat Falun Gong.”

Since late 1999, over the past 10 years or so, we have witnessed in China the development of China’s censorship technology and, shoulder-by-shoulder, the development of Falun Gong practitioners’ anti-censorship technology in a fierce information warfare over the Internet.

Here I would like to tell everyone that Falun Gong itself is just a traditional Chinese meditation, and does not have any political agenda. However, in order to stop the suppression, many Falun Gong practitioners have come together on a voluntary basis after 1999 to make various efforts to clarify the truth about the brutality of the suppression to Chinese people as well as to the world community. These include launching the world’s largest anti-censorship system over the Internet since 2000. The sole purpose of all such efforts is only to stop the persecution in China.

There are three factors contributing to the Internet censorship in China. Firstly, China has developed the world’s most advanced Internet censorship technologies. Secondly, China has the assistance from the top high-tech companies in the West such as Cisco and Nortel.

Thirdly, besides the technological aspect, there is a whole other dimension to censorship on the Net in China. We call it the “human flesh Great Firewall.” At the top is an army of tens of thousands of net police patrolling the web space in China. Down below are countless website administrators who are forced to sift through the blogs, forums, and bulletin boards they are managing to delete any posts deemed “sensitive” according to certain arbitrary rules. In addition, Internet service providers (ISPs) are told to keep an eye on the sites they are hosting and be ready to shut down the sites that cross another arbitrary line drawn by the state. Internet content providers such as search engines and portal sites also devote significant time and effort in preemptive self-censorship.

For instance, according to an Wall Street Journal article last September, there are nearly 300,000 what Chinese call “fifty-cent party” members in China. These members are paid full-time or part-time employees of the State to monitor the blogs, forums, and bulletin boards to delete content unfavorable to the Communist Party, and to post messages to lead the online discussions to a direction favorable to the Party. They are called “fifty-cent party” because an official document revealed that these members were paid fifty cents per posting by the State.

According to media reports and documents of human rights organizations, dozens of Internet journalists and users have been arrested and sentenced to long jail terms by the Chinese authorities over the past few years. A well-known case is Shi Tao, a journalist who was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for using his Yahoo! email to send a brief of a government document to an overseas website.

Should Shi Tao use our anti-censorship tools at the time, he would not have been tracked and arrested for his email.

Internet Anti-censorship and Global Internet Freedom Consortium

The Global Internet Freedom Consortium (GIFC) has been running the world’s largest anti-censorship operation since 2000. The Consortium consists of a small team of dedicated volunteers, connected through their common practice of Falun Gong, who have come together to work for the cause of Internet freedom. We constantly battle tens of thousands of Internet monitors and censors in China and around the world so that millions of citizens inside repressive societies may safely communicate online and access websites on human rights, democracy and other topics of interest. The men and women of the team maintain operations out of their own pockets, but provide their products and support services to the citizens of closed societies entirely free of charge.

There are three key elements in an Internet anti-censorship effort. The first element is technology. GIFC has developed effective technologies to defeat all existing censorship mechanisms. These technologies are the only ones that have been field-tested in constant battles for over 8 years, and have been supporting the largest user base in the world’s most censored countries like China and Iran.

We have developed not just one, but a fleet of five different anti-censorship tools – UltraSurf, FreeGate, Garden, GPass, and FirePhoenix. Currently these five tools accommodate an estimated 95% of the total anti-censorship traffic in closed societies around the world, and are used daily by millions of users.

The second element of anti-censorship is the outreach capacity, that is, the capacity to use conventional means such as email and fax to let users in the closed societies know and use the anti-censorship services. This is particularly challenging in some countries like China because of the strict censorship and harsh repression. With limited resources but hard work, GIFC has now for China the capacity of sending 20 million emails every 2 weeks, 10 million instant messages every day, 500,000 forum messages every day, 30 million phone calls every month, 400,000 faxes every month, and thousands of mails every month. What has been happening is a multi-dimensional information warfare that has crippled and, as many believe, will eventually tear down the world’s largest information firewall of China, as well as all the firewalls in other repressive regimes.

The impact of our Internet anti-censorship system has already had a global reach. Of the 43 countries identified as “Not Free” in Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2008 Survey, our anti-censorship system has served users in almost all the countries including Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Cameroon, China, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Libya, Maldives, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.

As of the end of 2008, the Top Five censoring countries with the most average daily hits to our anti-censorship systems are (hits per day): China 275 million, Iran 183 million, UAE 47 million, Saudi Arabia 39 million, and Syria 23 million.

We have witnessed first-hand the effectiveness of anti-censorship technologies in improving information freedom for people in closed societies. One particular phenomenon we have observed through years of anti-censorship work is whenever a news-worthy event related to a repressive region happened, the traffic from that region to our anti-censorship system would spike.

For instances, during the SARS pandemic in 2003, the traffic from China doubled in a short period of time. During the democratic movement in Burma in late August 2007, we experienced a three-fold increase in average daily hits from IP addresses originating inside Burma. Burmese used our system to post photos and videos of the bloody crackdown to the outside blogs and websites. After the protests broke out in Tibet on March 10 last year, there was a four-fold increase in the number of daily hits to our system from Tibet with Tibetans desperately trying to send out information about the crackdown by the Chinese authorities. In addition, of the current 54 million announcements quitting the Chinese Communist Party and its affiliated organizations by the Chinese people worldwide, a large majority of them were passed to the posting website by the mainland Chinese using our anti-censorship services.

Moreover, once the traffic from such a region spikes during an event, it would usually stay afterwards and keep growing from then on. This is probably because once people have a taste of uncensored information, they like it and would keep using our services. For example, the traffic from Burma during the crackdown in 2007 was at the level of hundreds of thousands hits per day, but by the end of 2008 it was already 6 million hits per day.

Our Internet anti-censorship services have the potential of transforming the closed societies in a peaceful but powerful way that must not be underestimated.

Our anti-censorship tools have also been of benefit to the Western organizations such as Human Rights in China, Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, BBC – and even to companies like Google and Yahoo! who self-censor, since we bring the uncensored version of their services into closed societies.

The third element of Internet anti-censorship is the infrastructure of the anti-censorship system. Besides a number of other important factors, scalability of the infrastructure is critical to the success of a large-scale anti-censorship system. In fact, technically it is not hard at all for a computer-savvy user in a closed society to find some way to get around the firewall. However, it is extremely difficult and challenging to scale up such an operation to accommodate millions of everyday users to use the system simultaneously, especially facing the censors’ constant and targeted blocking efforts.

Over the years, GIFC has developed the world’s largest and the only scalable anti-censorship infrastructure. The operation of our system has been very efficient: it only needs a few dollars to support a user in closed societies for an entire year; moreover, for every dollar we spend, China will need to spend a hundred, maybe hundreds of dollars to block us.

The Challenges

Despite the hard work of the men and women in the technical team of our Consortium, nevertheless, the demand from the users in closed societies has been increasing at an exploding speed, and far surpassed the little growth of the resources we can obtain. The information warfare over the Internet has actually boiled down to the battle of resources. The truth of the matter is that the amount of resources we have is almost negligible comparing with the almost unlimited amount of resources of the censors.

By the end of last year, the fast growing traffic from mid-East, in particular from Iran, overwhelmed and almost crushed our servers, which forced us to scale down our services to Iranian and other non-Chinese users so as to allow our anti-censorship system to work at a normal load.

At the same time that we are battling the censors for the freedom of the people in closed societies, we are, unfortunately, finding strong indication that companies such as Cisco located in free societies may be involved in helping the Chinese security agencies monitor and censor the Internet, and persecute and prosecute Chinese citizens. In a 2002 Cisco (China) PowerPoint presentation entitled “An Overview of [China's] Public Security Industry,” a Cisco (China) official in the Government Business Department listed the Golden Shield Project as one of Cisco's major target customers. In this document, which apparently lays out the marketing strategy for Cisco (China) to sell products to the Chinese security police, one of the three main objectives of the Golden Shield was to “combat ‘Falun Gong’.”

In the presentation page headed "Cisco Opportunities [in the Golden Shield Project]," Cisco offers much more than just routers to the Chinese security police; it offers planning, construction, technical training, and operations maintenance for the Golden Shield. Our research shows that the infrastructure of China’s Great Firewall coincides with the layouts in Cisco (China)’s PowerPoint document.

We must appeal to these Western corporations to reconsider what they are doing. Every time our anti-censorship tools are attacked using their technology, they are taking the side of the totalitarian authorities against Chinese people seeking some of the most basic human rights. They are jeopardizing the national security interests of the democratic nations by directly compromising the safety of millions of Internet users in closed societies around the world. This is no longer just a virtual game, and it is certainly no longer just about dollars and cents. Real lives are at stake. Just ask Yahoo! how Mr. Shi Tao is faring as a prisoner of conscience facing several more years in his prison sentence for sending an email.

Our Consortium has been able to stay ahead of the censorship game by developing new software and new technology, but each battle has been grueling and certainly taps into our already scarce resources. Sometimes we feel like a little David fighting a constant battle with a monolithic Goliath out in cyberspace. It has been a lonely battle thus far and we are tired of having to fight our fellow Western companies.

A particularly insidious aspect of information control is that it allows a repressive government to spoon feed the populace with whatever false information it chooses. On the flip side, anti-censorship technology can allow the people in closed societies to be better informed and to be less subject to manipulation by an unscrupulous leadership. Winning people over to a more open and free society via the Internet could very well be a way to avoid future conflicts that cost lives.

When Chinese "patriotic hackers" break into computer systems at the Western government agencies or maliciously compromise Western corporate data, even if it were not under the direct instructions of the Chinese government, it's usually the result of the Chinese state propaganda demonizing the democratic nations and whipping up nationalistic fervor. A battle being fought in cyberspace can all too quickly spill over into daily reality. The threat to the free world and global security is very, very real.

Dictatorships like China and Iran are spending billions on their Firewalls and cyber-attacks upon the West. How much is the West spending combating this cyber threat? Not hardly enough.

The services the Consortium provides are invaluable and the impact goes far beyond the Internet. When the people in closed societies have gained a taste of freedom and are given a way to share information, they will no longer tolerate tyranny.

Only when the free world shows more determination to keep the Internet open than those dictatorships’ will to seal it off, can there be the hope of information freedom and democracy for the citizens in all closed societies, can there be the end of the persecution in China and human rights in all other repressive countries, and can there be a more peaceful tomorrow for all of mankind.

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