May 30, 2006 - Bringing Down The Virtual Wall In China

by Danielle Belopotosky

Armed with a computer, an Internet connection and Web phone, a housewife in

Arlington, Va., monitors the phone throughout the night to guide callers from China oninstalling software to break through Internet blocking technologies.

In an undisclosed Eastern European city, meanwhile, relatives of a Chinese family manually feed a fax machine page-by-page to blast information to businesses in China to spread the word about China's human rights record, pro-democracy movements, ways to circumvent China's censors and information they otherwise cannot access from inside China.

They are among a worldwide underground support network of democracy advocates who seek to promote the free flow of information within China. Comprised of a few hundred volunteers, these activists are using the Internet, fax machines, telephones and old fashioned pamphleteering to fight back against the Chinese government's tight controlover the Internet.

They serve as the customer service arm and technical support for a consortium of U.S.-based Internet companies that have been leading the efforts to crash China's so-called"great firewall."

Dousing The Firewall

The Chinese government, which is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, has employed a multi-tiered approach to regulating the Internet. It has used jamming technologies to block content on the Internet, and it has deployed an estimated 30,000 cyber cops whose job it is to trove the Internet for restricted information sophisticated computer systems cannot identify or to monitor online chat rooms for banned content.

The government also has imposed regulations on netizens and posted state-supported materials to the Internet in an attempt to discredit internal dissent or to hide signs of social unrest, Rutgers' University computer science professor Shiyu Zhou said. It also has enlisted college students to monitor their peers' Internet use.

Zhou is a member of the Global Internet Freedom Consortium, which consists of

Dynamic Internet Technology, Ultrareach and other Internet companies spread across the United States that have been leading efforts to break through China's firewall over the past six years. They have developed anti-jamming technologies enabling Internet users from the inside reach the uncensored outside world.

"The main purpose" for the government's censorship of information is to cover up

corruption and social problems, asserts Zhou. In 2005, Chinese officials reported there were more than 87,000 riots in China -- or one every six minutes, he said.

References to the June 4, 1989, pro-democracy student protests that led to the Tiananmen Square massacre have been filtered. Meanwhile, materials have been posted to the Web in an effort to discredit the spiritual practice called Falun Gong and other pro-democracy movements.

Since the end of 1999, when the CCP banned the Falun Gong practice, this small group of IT experts has dedicated their spare time and dollars to create counter-firewall technology. For every $1 they spend to develop their technologies, the Chinese government spends about $10 million to censor the Web, Zhou estimates.

DIT has developed software called Freegate, which lets users surf the Web and view sites banned by the Chinese government. Today, the network is capable of receiving more than 30,000 hits from inside China, according to Zhou. He estimates it would take 20 million users to crash the firewall.

DIT reaches out to people via online chat rooms, instant messaging, mass e-mailing technologies and Web site postings, according to company President Bill Xia. Volunteers try to reach 10 million Internet users in bimonthly large-scale mailings.

They accumulate e-mail addresses from a variety of sources, including purchasing them on the black market from those hired by the government to monitor the Internet. "They don't work for the [communist] party, they work for the money," Xia said. But the risk is great. One person accused of selling lists spent 18 months in a labor camp, he said.

Not only do government employees allegedly sell such information, many officials have downloaded the software to reach the uncensored Web, said Zhou. "It's the only game out there."

A Grassroots Approach

At the grassroots level, there is a "people's war" in China to get the message out that users can circumvent the firewall, Xia said. Meanwhile, outside of China "we can attack the technical issues" to make it more difficult for the human censors, he added.

Their methods have proved successful. "I got to know you through the fax you send to our company regularly," one person wrote of the secret portal Web users reach through the use DIT's Freegate technology. "I log onto this site everyday now. It tells me the truth." Technology Daily was provided with translated feedback about the software and Web portal created for those seeking information outside of China's firewall.

Once on the other side of China's unrestricted Web, users find a portal with links to banned Western media Web sites, including BBC and The Wall Street Journal.

But for many, gaining access to the outside world is about political freedom; more than 10 million have renounced their membership to the Chinese Communist Party online.

Since they have successfully created software to secure virtual passage beyond China, these IT experts are taking their initiative a step further. "Our goal is to put the anticensorship part in the background," Xia said.

Instead of only pushing information into China, this new platform allows users to

securely build content from behind the wall and send it outside of China, said Peter Yuan Li, who holds a doctorate degree in electronic engineering from Princeton University.

Moreover, they have developed the technology to detect when their software is being blocked and can switch to another channel, Li said.

They also have added more communication tools for individuals on the Web site, which allows users to host blogs, participate in uncensored online forums or send untraceable emails."On top of anti-censorship, they can really have a free Internet," Xia said.

"We've created a secure online virtual environment" for people in China, Zhou said. The Internet is a two-way communications tool, and this tool has created something "that does not exist in reality in China."

He calls this new environment a "marriage of platforms." Not only can they bring in "factual" information into China, but now individuals can get "truthful information outside of China."

The technology is universal. Zhou said this platform can be applied to other societies where the Internet is censored. "This can advance Internet freedom all over the world," Zhou said.

Spreading Information Beyond the Net

Beyond the Internet, Chinese living abroad also have established a television network called New Tang Dynasty Television, which has provided a global platform for live talk shows that address social issues and current affairs.

Access to world news has created a boom in the underground market for satellite dishes, they said. More than 50 million households are estimated to have satellite dishes.

Activists are also reaching inside China through shortwave radio programs, including U.S.-based Sound of Hope. The station has broadcast the Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party, a book published by the Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-linked newspaper that focuses much of its attention on China's human rights record. The book has been banned in China, and possession of it could result in a four-year visit to a labor camp.

"This battle for rights to information freedom is extensive, and includes all kinds of channels and media outlets," Zhou said. U.S. politicians and the American people do not fully understand the "imbalanced

situation" in China, Li said.

Congress has held hearings on China's human rights record. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., has introduced legislation, H.R. 4780, that would prohibit U.S. companies from hosting e-mail servers in countries that suppress access to information.

But Zhou said support to fund such activities would be more "beneficial."