Members of China’s biggest social network, Weibo, have taken on the country’s notoriously strict Internet censors in hopes of recovering content that has been blocked by the government. Though Weibo is still heavily censored when it comes to sensitive political topics, or during sensitive time periods, the efforts of several kinds of China-watchers allow for blocked content to be revived.
The microblogging platform Weibo, similar to Twitter, boasts more than 500 million users, and has become a stage from which more liberal or critical ideas can be voiced, and discussed with relatively few repercussions. Along with such expression comes a backlash of censorship, forcing China’s netizens to get creative. One website, Freeweibo.com, is just one of several online efforts to keep blocked content online. Free Weibo won this year’s Best of Blogs awards for Best Innovation, an honor that is given to efforts that promote free expression.
The website, which has both English and Chinese user interfaces, says it allows for “uncensored and anonymous Sina Weibo searches” while openly ignoring “relevant laws, legislation and policy” of China. The search engine, of course, was blocked a week after going live on mainland China, but is still accessible and updated outside of the Great Firewall, becoming mostly what it is today, a major tool for researchers outside of China.
The people behind Free Weibo have been in the anti-censorship game for several years now. Of the three founders, two have been able to remain anonymous, presumably to avoid legal trouble or retaliation from the Chinese government. The third is an American citizen who goes by the name Martin Johnson. The site monitors more than 10,000 websites and is even able to distinguish the methods of blocking. Starting in 2011 with the launch of Greatfire.org, which tests the accessibility of certain websites through the Great Firewall and monitors what key words and topics are being blocked, the developers have seen the platform evolve into something much bigger, namely an academic tool.
Before the Free Weibo endeavor, Greatfire was, and continues to be a source for researchers outside of China to gain knowledge of the country’s censorship practices. Everyone from academics to activists can use the social media site as a gauge of China’s political positioning by observing censorship practices as they are implemented. For example, most recently, search inquiries for fallen political leader Bo Xilai would return no results, until the official announcement of Bo's charges. China uses its censorship and lifting of censors to control Internet conversation about given topics, at times that are convenient for the regime.
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In an exclusive interview with China’s state-run news outlet Global Times, one of the founders, identified by his pseudonym Percy Alpha, revealed that the site continues to collaborate with various organizations and developers to maintain their freedom of speech agenda. “Chinese people in general know very little about censorship,” Percy Alpha said. He added that Google pulling out of the China market in 2010 spurred the project's initial launch.
Zhang Zhi’an, a new media professor at Sun Yat-sen University in southern Guangdong province, is one person who sees the academic value of the such efforts. “I don’t know about their motives, but by presenting this blocked information, they allow more people to know about Internet regulation in China and provide data for other scholars who might be interested in studying China’s Internet monitoring,” Zhang said.