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Foiling Beijing's cyber cops

`Tunnels' help Chinese users bypass censorship and access blocked Western websites.

July 03, 2006|Bill Xia | BILL XIA is chief executive officer of Dynamic Internet Technology Inc. (www.dit-inc.us)

MY CYBER WAR with the Chinese Communist censors began in 2002. We had another battle last month when Beijing launched a massive campaign aimed at blocking access to banned Internet websites, around the anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre. Users in China suddenly could no longer get through to Google's search engine, though the censored Chinese version of Google stayed up.

My colleagues and I spent two weeks, working round-the-clock, revising software that Chinese citizens could use to circumvent the censorship and gain access to the Western news and information sites the government sought to deny them. Our upgrade is now working, and information is flowing again. But after this latest exhausting bout, I feel it is important to speak out for the estimated 300,000 people in China who rely on my services but who cannot make their voices heard.

Like them, I was educated in China to believe that as long as you study math and science well, you will have nothing to worry about. I came to the United States as a graduate student in the sciences in the late 1990s. When American friends showed me a videotape about the Tiananmen massacre, I privately doubted that it was true.

Then, in 1999, I saw a 30-minute video that the Chinese state media were broadcasting to slander the Falun Gong spiritual movement. I had been practicing Falun Gong for two years, had benefited from it, and I knew of many others who embraced it as a renaissance of traditional Chinese spirituality. Suddenly, I realized that I had become a public enemy in China. I also realized that the Tiananmen tape I had been shown was accurate. And I saw how my government had deployed its massive resources to concoct lies and justify torturing and killing innocents.

In 2000, a friend showed me how he was trying to crash through the Great Firewall of China. He had a primitive mass e-mailing program, a buggy precursor that would eventually evolve into a program now commissioned by the International Broadcasting Bureau, a U.S. agency, to send mass e-mails for Voice of America and Radio Free Asia.

My friend also had specially adapted peer-to-peer software he was designing to help Chinese users access blocked websites. I joined him and his team members in refining the technology, which allows a user in China to access an overseas website that "tunnels" them back to a blocked site. We also became involved in the Internet distribution of the "Nine Commentaries," a series of essays criticizing the Chinese Communist system.

In 2002, at the suggestion of the team, I started a private company in the United States that relies on a network of hundreds of volunteers, inside China and abroad, to produce technologies to defeat Internet censorship. Though 90% of our users are in China, the program also is being used in Myanmar and Vietnam.

We run what is called an intelligent proxy network -- a network of computers that guides users through the censors' walls to overseas "middleman" servers, which in turn redirect them to the websites they wish to see. We announce publicly how to reach our proxy, which is called DynaWeb. Our philosophy is to make our network available to everyone, and we do not attempt to distinguish among users, be they curious citizens, dissidents or government spies. That makes us an obvious target for attack.

It's not easy to stay one step ahead of the cyber police, given the enormous resources the Chinese government devotes to cutting its people off from the free exchange of opinions and information.

We launched DynaWeb in March 2002, and within six months, our domain was "hijacked." Users who tried to get to our "middleman" servers were diverted to bogus servers that led them nowhere. Some users, however, provided us with detailed information collected from their computers, and thanks to this help, we were able to thwart the hijacking and resume operations after three painful weeks.

Our volunteers have proved again and again that we can defeat even China's costly technologies and its legions of Internet police. Chinese citizens are hungry for uncensored information. When we first launched, one excited user sent us a message that read, simply, "Thank you" -- repeated hundreds of times.

I believe that information -- that the truth -- can change China. And I believe that the Communist regime has never really represented the Chinese people. Which leaves me with two questions for American and multinational companies such as Google and Yahoo (which have been cooperating with the Chinese government in censoring China's Internet): Which China do you want to win over? And which China do you really want as your business partner?

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