BEIJING—Twitter is one of many social media network services that are blocked in mainland China by the Great Firewall, the blanket term for Chinese authorities' censorship of the internet. As well as depriving the country's 1.35 billion-strong population of access to Piers Morgan and John Cleese's online spats and Danny Dyer's thoughts on the women's football "Treacle World Cup," it means that the fastest-spreading network of global news is a black spot to those based in the world's most populous country.
Attempting to shine a light on this black spot is FireTweet, a new app that allows users to access Twitter in areas where it is censored. It was released last month by the team behind anti-censorship app Lantern and uses the same system. FireTweet is available on Android devices now and it seems to work fine so far. I recently tried it out in Beijing and found that it allowed full access to Twitter, although it ran a touch slowly.
Prior to the release of FireTweet Twitter could already be accessed in places where it was blocked by using a virtual private network (VPN) service. VPNs trick computers into acting like they are based abroad, but they are vulnerable to being taken down by authorities during times deemed to be sensitive. Few 'netizens'—Chinese slang for online citizens—bother using VPNs, with China-based Weibo being the social media network of choice for them.
Weibo is not blocked in China and is basically like Twitter, with another difference being that it's in Chinese. A further difference is that if you post up photos of the Hong Kong Occupy Central pro-democracy protests from last year you're likely to get arrested and possibly tortured.
Amnesty International claimed that many people on the mainland were arrested for posting about the protests since they kicked off in October, accusing authorities of torture and preventing detainees from seeing lawyers. It's all part of an enormous crackdown on dissent that is getting more severe as the Communist Party of China (CPC) scrambles to keep freedom of expression and non-Communist views under the boot in an increasingly social media-led world.
The Lantern system FireTweet uses stores a variety of anti-blocking techniques, moving through the methods if a particular technique has been successfully crippled in the area it is being used. One method is distributing the IP addresses of proxies through peer-to-peer networks; another is tunneling traffic through already popular online services that are unblocked.
"The more attention it gets, the more pressure it'll get on a technical side—we'll become a bigger target."
Adam Fisk, FireTweet's chief executive, told Motherboard that although the app had only been downloaded a few hundred times so far and was in a 'soft launch' phase before marketing drives kick in, he was aiming for user numbers in the millions. The app was born during a casual hackathon competition in Spain and Fisk said that finding out whether it would survive a targeted attack form the Great Firewall would be an "experiment," despite his ambition.
"So far we can't guarantee it's going to remain unblocked," he said. "So it'll be interesting to see what the Great Firewall's reaction to it is. The more attention it gets, the more pressure it'll get on a technical side—we'll become a bigger target. It'll be an interesting adventure."
It is estimated that over a third of China's internet users use Weibo. Although anti-government sentiment is swiftly crushed with phrase-blocking and post deletions, other styles of online protest have been allowed. In 2014 Nian Bin, a man who spent eight years on death row for the murder of two children in China, was acquitted following an intense social media campaign to free him. This year an enormous international Twitter campaign to cancel the Yulin dog meat festival, at which around 10,000 dogs are slaughtered each year for consumption, mirrored one on Weibo that gained traction in China.
Due to censorship being so rampant in China, the hardest aspect of FireTweet management will probably be spreading the message about its existence. If it gains prominence those behind the Great Firewall are all but certain to attempt to censor mentions of it on Chinese social media as well as marketing attempts, and it won't get anywhere near state-controlled media.
"It's a huge challenge," said Fisk. "That aspect is more difficult than the technical aspects, for sure."
Initially FireTweet may get more joy in Iran, where Twitter has been banned since 2009 (bar one brief period of it being lifted), but where FireTweet says it has a yet-to-be-unveiled marketing plan to raise awareness. However, Fisk is right to call the unfolding of the app an "experiment," not least because last April GitHub, the site that hosts the FireTweet download, was on the receiving end of a massive cyber-attack thought to be from Chinese authorities.
Despite the size of the wall it will have to climb to become a reliable, long-running Twitter access point in China, FireTweet is a worthwhile experiment. Lantern already has 8,000 regularly active users in China, which isn't a bad starting point and suggests that FireTweet could get into quadruple figures fairly quickly too. Expect things to become clearer after August, when an iOS version is due.