By Geoffrey A. Fowler
The Wall Street Journal
February 14, 2006
Surfing the Web last fall, a Chinese high-school student who calls
himself Zivn noticed something missing. It was Wikipedia, an online
encyclopedia that accepts contributions or edits from users, and that
he himself had contributed to.
The Chinese government, in October, had added Wikipedia to a list of
Web sites and phrases it blocks from Internet users' access. For Zivn,
trying to surf this and many other Web sites, including the BBC's
Chinese-language news service, brought just an error message. But the
17-year-old had had a taste of that wealth of information and wanted
more. "There were so many lies among the facts, and I could not find
where the truth is," he writes in an instant-message interview.
Then some friends told him where to find Freegate, a tiny software
program that thwarts the Chinese government's vast system to limit
what its citizens see. Freegate -- by connecting computers inside of
China to servers in the U.S. -- allows Zivn and others to keep reading
and writing to Wikipedia and countless other sites.
Behind Freegate is a North Carolina-based Chinese hacker named Bill
Xia. He calls it his red pill, a reference to the drug in the "Matrix"
movies that vaulted unconscious captives of a totalitarian regime into
the real world. Mr. Xia likes to refer to the villainous Agent Smith
from the Matrix films, noting that the digital bad guy in sunglasses
"guards the Matrix like China's Public Security Bureau guards the
It isn't all science fiction. China is aggressively moving to control
the Internet. Even as the 50 million Internet connections within the
country grow faster, contact with the rest of the Web is growing
muddier. Roughly a dozen Chinese government agencies employ thousands
of Web censors, Internet cafe police and computers that constantly
screen traffic for forbidden content and sources -- a barrier often
called the Great Firewall of China. Type, say, "media censorship by
China" into emails, chats or Web logs, and the messages never arrive.
Even with this extensive censorship, Chinese are getting vast amounts
of information electronically that they never would have found a
decade ago. The Internet was one reason the authorities, after a
week's silence, ultimately had to acknowledge a disastrous toxic spill
in a river late last year. But the government recently has redoubled
its efforts to narrow the Net's reach on sensitive matters.
It has required all bloggers, or writers of Web logs, to register. At
the end of last year, 15 Internet writers were in jail in China,
according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based
group. And China has gotten some U.S. Internet companies to limit the
search results they provide or the discussions they host on their
Chinese services. A tiny firm Mr. Xia set up to provide and maintain
Freegate had to lobby computer-security companies such as Symantec
Corp. not to treat it as a virus.
In response to China's crackdown and restrictions in many Middle
Eastern countries, a small army has been mustered to defeat them.
"Hacktivists," they call themselves.
Bennett Haselton, a security consultant and former Microsoft Corp.
programmer, has developed a system called the Circumventor. It
connects volunteers around the world with Web users in China and the
Middle East so they can use their hosts' personal computers to read
Susan Stevens, a Las Vegas graphic designer, belongs to an "adopt a
blog" program. She has adopted a Chinese blogger by using her own
server in the U.S. to broadcast his very personal musings on religion
to the world. She has never left the U.S., but "this is where
technology excels," she says. "We don't have to have anything in
common. We barely have to speak the same language."
In Boston, computer scientist Roger Dingledine tends to Tor, a
modified version of a U.S. Naval Research Laboratory project, which
disguises the identities of Chinese Web surfers by sending messages
through several layers of hosts to obscure their path.
Freegate has advantages over some of its peers. As the product of
ethnically Chinese programmers, it uses the language and fits the
culture. It is a simple and small program, whose file size of just 137
kilobytes helps make it easy to store in an email program and pass
along on a portable memory drive.
Mr. Xia says that about 100,000 users a day currently use Freegate or
two other censorship-defeating systems he helped create. It is
impossible to confirm that claim, but Freegate and similar programs
from others, called UltraReach and Garden Networks, are becoming a
part of the surfing habits of China's Internet elite in universities,
cafes and newsrooms.
Freegate has a key booster in Falun Gong, the spiritual group China
banned in 1999 as subversive. It is a practice of meditations and
breathing exercises based on moralistic teachings by its founder, Li
Hongzhi. Chinese expatriates -- marrying U.S. free-speech politics
with protests over persecution of Falun Gong practitioners in China --
have focused their energy on breaking China's censorship systems. They
have nurtured the work of Mr. Xia, himself a Falun Gong follower, and
several other programmers.
Freegate also gets a financial boost from the U.S. government. Voice
of America and Radio Free Asia, part of the federal government's
Broadacasting Board of Governors, pay Mr. Xia and others to send out
emails featuring links to their stories.
Kenneth Berman, manager of the anticensorship office of the board's
International Broadcasting Bureau, declines to say how much it
compensates Mr. Xia. But he says the bureau pays about $5 million a
year to companies to help combat Internet censorship abroad,
especially in China and Iran.
"Our policy is to allow individuals to get anything they want, when
they want," Mr. Berman says. "Bill and his techniques help us do
Human Rights in China, a New York nonprofit group, also helps fund Mr.
Xia's enterprise, which runs on a budget of about $1 million a year.
The resources behind Freegate and other hactivists could increase if
Congress revives a bill to create an Office of Global Internet
Freedom. U.S. Internet companies have drawn strong criticism in
Congress for compliance with Chinese Web restriction, and hearings on
their activities are set for Wednesday. Microsoft, Google Inc. and
Yahoo Inc. all say that they abide by local laws. Microsoft's general
counsel said this month that the software giant shuts down personal
blogs only if it receives a "legally binding notice from a
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