GreatFire Under Attack Following WSJ Article

This week, Eva Dou and Alistair Barr of the Wall Street Journal wrote an article describing the ways anti-censorship groups use major cloud computing company servers to host mirror sites of websites that are blocked by the . From Dou and Barr’s report:

Activists outside of China say they are disguising Internet traffic banned by Beijing—which includes anything from social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, to Gmail and news websites—by tunneling it encrypted through cloud servers run by major U.S. companies.

These cloud services run by .com Inc.,Microsoft Corp., Akamai Technologies Inc. and others are meant to help businesses improve their website speeds by storing their data on remote servers. But activists say they are using them to get around China’s so-called Great Firewall, which could draw the cloud providers unwillingly into the censorship clash.

To stem the flow of prohibited content, authorities would need to block entire servers of these companies, disrupting hundreds of businesses, according to the activists.

“Essentially, it’s similar to forcing authoritarian regimes to kill everyone in a protest because they can’t tell the real agitators from the bystanders,” said Adam Fisk, a Los Angeles-based programmer who in 2013 founded an app called Lantern that is designed to outmaneuver censors. Lantern uses the method along with other groups such as anticensorship activist group and anonymous communications software provider Tor. [Source]

GreatFire has written about their efforts to “liberate” blocked websites (including China Digital Times) using this method, which they term “”:

As has been widely reported, VPNs have been severely disrupted in China. We have a different approach to circumvention. We host content with the world’s leading content delivery networks (CDNs). For the censors to block our websites and apps, they would have to block all websites and apps being served by CDNs (content delivery networks). The entire blocking of all CDNs would cause a severe disruption of internet services for everybody in China as CDNs account for over 50% of all global web traffic. The economic damage caused by such a disruption would be major. We believe that the Chinese authorities would not dare block all websites and apps being served by CDNs because they understand the economic implications of this action. [Source]

Soon after the Wall Street Journal article was published, GreatFire experienced severe DDOS attacks which rendered the mirror sites they had set up inaccessible. Charlie from GreatFire writes on their blog:

We are not equipped to handle a DDoS attack of this magnitude and we need help. Some background:

  • The attack started on March 17 and we are receiving up to 2.6 billion requests per hour which is about 2500 times more than normal levels.
  • This attack affects all of our mirror websites. While we have talked openly about our method of using collateral freedom to unblock websites and mobile apps that have been blocked by the Chinese authorities, the WSJ story clearly stated how the strategy works and how it is being used successfully to deliver uncensored content into China. Blocked websites that we have liberated in China include BoxunDeutsche Welle and Google.
  • We don’t know who is behind this attack. However, the attack coincides with increased pressure on our organization over the last few months. The Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) publicly called us “an anti-China website set up by an overseas anti-China organization”. We also know that CAC has put pressure on our IT partners to stop working with us. Recently, we noticed that somebody was trying to impersonate us to intercept our encrypted email.
  • Last week, Reporters Without Borders, an NGO based in Paris, used our open source method of collateral freedom to unblock nine websites around the world, including two of importance to China: Mingjing News and The Tibet Post[Source]

The GreatFire post goes on to list ways they are seeking help from the public in countering the attack.