Evading the Censors

Free Software Takes Users Around Filters

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

BEIJING -- A decade ago, China blocked access to three overseas Web sites -- two pro-democracy sites and one devoted to Maoist ideals the government had abandoned in favor of capitalism, according to Michael Robinson, an American computer engineer who helped connect China to the Internet. Today, studies show thousands of Web sites are blocked.

But even as the list of banned sites has grown, accessing them is getting easier.

Savvy Internet users have always been able to slip past the government's firewall by adjusting their browsers to detour data through computer servers that aren't blocked. But the process is difficult for many users, and it is unreliable because the government eventually identifies and blocks the servers.

Over the past two years, though, the technical advantage has shifted against the government because of two free programs, Freegate and UltraSurf, produced by Chinese emigres in the United States who are members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement.

Both work with computer networks outside China to lead users past government filters to Web pages with Falun Gong material attacking the Communist Party. Once past the firewall, users can visit any blocked site, including the blog that Zhao Jing maintains on an overseas server, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia and dissident news forums.

UltraSurf, in particular, is effective because its works in the background, allowing users to browse the Internet as usual. About 80,000 people use it every day, according to the California company that makes it, UltraReach Internet Corp.

The firm's president, who asked not to be identified to protect his operation from the Chinese government, said he moved to the United States in the early 1990s as a graduate student in engineering and developed UltraSurf after he was detained in China for 15 days in 1999 for practicing Falun Gong.

He said he has sold his house to finance the project, which involves maintaining a network of servers and staying ahead of Beijing. "What we are doing is for the freedom of the Chinese people," he said.

"We achieved the first goal, breaking through the wall," he added. "The second goal is to scale it up" by making the program easier to use and getting more users.

The U.S. government, through the agency that runs Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, pays UltraReach about $40,000 a year, he said.

It also funds Dynamic Internet Technology Inc. of North Carolina, which produces Freegate and also sends millions of e-mails every day to Chinese users on behalf of the U.S. broadcasters. The company's president, Bill Xia, said about 100,000 people use Freegate every day.

The Chinese government has thus far been unable to thwart the programs and has tried instead to limit their distribution by blocking e-mail containing them and by listing them as threats in databases used by anti-virus programs. But Liu Zhengrong, a senior Internet affairs official, dismissed their significance. "The Web sites that provide these programs do not have credibility among Internet users," he said.

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