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Father of China's 'Great Firewall' is unrepentant

Widely vilified in his homeland, Fang Binxing, in an English-language newspaper interview, defends his creation and says he uses VPNs to test the Internet blockade he helped set up.

February 18, 2011|By David Pierson, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Beijing — The man known as the father of the so-called Great Firewall of China is defending his invention, which blocks access to hundreds of thousands of foreign websites, and says he uses privacy software to test the holes in the censorship technology he helped create.

In a rare English-language interview published Friday, Fang Binxing, president of the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, told the state-owned Global Times that he owned six virtual private networks, or VPNs, to scale the firewall and determine what was and wasn't accessible in China.

"I have six VPNs on my home computer," Fang, 50, told the newspaper. "But I only try them to test which side wins: the GFW or the VPN."

He added, "I'm not interested in reading messy information like some of that anti-government stuff."

Fang, who could not be reached for comment Friday by The Times, said the filtering technology was operational five years before it came online in 2003, and he likened the system to traffic control that constantly required upgrading.

The firewall is assumed to identify keywords to prevent access to websites featuring sensitive topics such as Tibetan independence or the outlawed spiritual group Falun Gong.

The mechanism is also blamed for blocking popular social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in China, which has the world's largest community of Internet users, an estimated 457 million people.

Experts say more and more Chinese are downloading censorship-circumvention tools, like the VPNs Fang uses or proxy servers, in response to the tighter Internet environment. At the same time, authorities are blocking access to sites where the software is available.

Still, the number of Facebook users in China reportedly doubled to 700,000 after company Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg visited the country, according to Socialbakers.com, a site that tracks Facebook statistics. Facebook has been blocked in China since 2009.

Fang is vilified within China's small but thriving technological elite. On his site, Hong Bo, a popular technology blogger in Beijing who goes by the screen name Keso, features a voodoo doll of sorts with Fang's head affixed.

"Fang Binxing is a synonym for the Great Firewall and people hate the Great Firewall," said Hong, who added that he believed blocking open-source sites such as Google's Android is far more detrimental to the country's development than censorship of anti-government material.

In one embarrassing episode in December, Fang joined a Twitter-like service in China known as a micro-blog, or weibo. Within hours, he was battered by thousands of angry and abusive comments laced with expletives.

"He is the enemy of all netizens who are forced to scale the wall all day long because of GFW," read one post translated by China Digital Times, a site dedicated to tech news in China.

Fang shut down his account a few days later.

"I regard the dirty abuse as a sacrifice for my country," he told the Global Times in discussing the incident. "They can't get what they want so they need to blame someone emotionally: like if you fail to get a U.S. visa and you slag off the U.S. visa official afterward."

The interview with Fang did not appear in the Chinese-language edition of the Global Times, which is far more nationalistic and anti-Western in tone. English-language newspapers in China often are less restrained when exploring sensitive issues, partly because of their small and largely foreign audience.

david.pierson@latimes.com

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