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Great-firewall-busting microblog app puts AWS in China's firing line

If China wants to censor this it will have to block ALL of Amazon Web Services

Designing a Defense for Mobile Applications

The team behind anti-censorship body Greatfire.org has launched an Android app promising unfettered access to all Weibo content, in what it claims is a major step towards circumventing the Great Firewall for Chinese users.

Launched back in 2012, FreeWeibo is effectively an uncensored version of the country’s most popular microblog – formerly known as Sina Weibo – which provides access to posts deleted by in-house censors.

The service was launched first as an iOS app last year but later removed from the China App Store by Apple because it broke local laws. Cupertino big wigs at the time were in the middle of protracted negotiations to bring the iPhone to China Mobile’s 700 million+ users.

There will be no such problem with Android, however, which is by far the most popular mobile OS in China and where applications are accessed primarily through a variety of third party app stores.

Greatfire.org explained the following in an email:

We have now developed a way to deliver information into China that can be viewed by any of the 320 million people who have Android devices. They do not need a VPN or proxy and, other than downloading the app, they do not need any special circumvention tools. Once the app has been downloaded, the delivery of new information to the app will continue unfettered and uncensored. This is an important step forward in making the Great Firewall of China obsolete. We are now implementing this solution for organisations that have their content blocked in China.

The app hopes to circumvent the Great Firewall in the same way as the FreeWeibo site – by employing a strategy known as “collateral freedom”.

What this means in practice is that all of its content is hosted on Amazon Web Services’ encrypted S3 platform.

Using a subpath of an HTTPS-supporting AWS domain means the Great Firewall cannot block access for a FreeWeibo user without also blocking access to all of S3, creating huge business interruption for organisations that use the US cloud giant in China.

Beijing tried to do this once, when it blocked HTTPS-supporting dev site Github because some content it didn’t like appeared there. However, such was the backlash from developers it backed down two days later.

Greatfire has also used this strategy to provide access to Reuters in China after it was blocked last year.

It stands a pretty good chance of success as long as Amazon doesn’t bend to government pressure and remove the FreeWeibo/Greatfire account.

There are also signs that Beijing is planning to introduce new regulations governing app content which will force app store providers to vet and police content on their platforms.

However, in the meantime, the FreeWeibo Android app could be a useful alternative for Weibo users inside the Great Firewall frustrated at patchy VPN services. ®

Application security programs and practises

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