The Shawshank Prevention

As the blackout on news of Chen Guangcheng shows, Chinese censors are getting better at what they do. Can U.S. government-funded tools help China's netizens break free?

The "Shawshank Redemption" has nothing to do with China, but that hasn't kept social media censors from blocking the movie's title from searches on the country's most popular Twitter-like microblogging service, Weibo.

After last month's dramatic escape by the the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng from house arrest in Shandong Province into U.S. diplomatic custody, Weibo's internal censors moved quickly to ban searches for Chen's name and related terms like "embassy." People determined to discuss Chen's case were forced to speak in code -- and the Shawshank Redemption, a Hollywood movie about a dramatic prison break -- quickly caught on. So did the censors. According to the California-based China Digital Times, a website that closely monitors Chinese Internet censorship, the movie title has been banned on Weibo since April 28 -- along with the names of Linyi township and Dong Shigu village where Chen is from, as well as the Chinese word for "pearl," which happens to be the English name of He Peirong, the woman who helped him escape and who is now believed in custody.

Due to censorship, if one were to poll a random sample of college-educated people in China today, very few would know about Chen. Concern for his case is limited mainly to liberal-minded bloggers, social media mavens, and intellectuals who make a point of seeking out and passing around alternative news. Nobody knows exactly how large this group is, but Xiao Qiang, founder of the China Digital Times, estimates that it may amount to roughly 2-3 million people.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in China for high-level diplomatic talks already overshadowed by Chen's case, this small but elite group was following news of her visit. To get the full story, however, they had to circumvent the nationwide Internet censorship system known popularly as the "Great Firewall of China" that keeps Chinese social media and other domestic web services within a censored walled garden. Some use circumvention software funded by Clinton's own State Department. But as Washington has been learning the hard way, bringing free and open Internet to a critical mass of Chinese people is neither cheap nor easy.

Since 2008, the State Department has spent more than $70 million on "Internet freedom programming" worldwide. In budget year 2012 it will spend $25 million and is requesting $27.5 million for 2013 -- one of the few government expenditures, it seems, that garners bipartisan support these days. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), which runs the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and other services aimed at audiences in countries without a free press, was given $10 million by Congress to spend in the current fiscal year and is requesting an increase for next year.

After Secretary Clinton announced in January 2010 that Internet freedom would be a major pillar of U.S. foreign policy, the State Department decided to take what Clinton calls a "venture capital" approach to the funding of tools, research, public information projects, and training. Censorship, as it turns out, is only one of many threats faced by people seeking to speak, assemble, and access information online. Other threats include surveillance, spyware, hacking of activist websites and social media accounts, and total Internet shutdown -- something that most famously happened last year in Egypt but has happened elsewhere. The Chinese government sometimes shuts down the Internet and mobile services in specific areas where unrest occurs. Faced with a global mandate and a multitude of threats to online freedom, the State Department says it funds the development and deployment of more than 20 different circumvention and secure communications technologies, in addition to in-person training for thousands of activists in different parts of the world, as well as online campaigns to raise public awareness about censorship and surveillance.

This approach came under attack in 2010 from administration critics who argued that the State Department should instead focus the bulk of its funding on circumvention tools called Freegate and Ultrasurf, created by members of the Falun Gong religious sect, a group that is banned in China and whose members are well documented to have been victims of widespread human rights abuses at the hands of Chinese authorities. Created roughly a decade ago by volunteer programmers working out of the homes of Chinese exiles in the United States, they are among the earliest widely adopted non-commercial tools developed specifically to subvert the censorship of an authoritarian regime. Demand for such tools by Internet users in China has spiked over the past several months in the wake of the political leadership crisis triggered by the public downfall of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai. According to the Ultrasurf team, traffic from China on the project's servers jumped from 70,000 users per day last December to around 200,000 in April -- spiking to a high of 270,000 on April 11, right after the arrest of Bo Xilai's wife in connection with the suspected murder of British businessman Neil Heywood.

While Freegate and Ultrasurf have received some modest funding from the State Department over the past year and have received support from the BBG since 2003, advocates have argued that more robust funding could be politically game-changing in countries like China. In promoting their software to the media, however, the Ultrasurf team in 2010 allowed a journalist from WIRED and a columnist from the Washington Post to view their internal user logs, demonstrating that the project not only collects data about who their users are and their online activity, but that users' privacy is not particularly well-guarded once it hits Ultrasurf's servers in the United States. Security experts began raising concerns about the software's vulnerability to attack, infiltration, and data theft. In summer 2011, Jacob Appelbaum, a security researcher and developer who works on Tor, a free and openly developed tool that helps Internet users obscure their traffic from surveillance (and which also receives U.S. government funding), conducted an analysis of Ultrasurf because, he explained, he had "seen people promoting it without also offering evidence that it is safe."

Appelbaum's findings, shared in draft form with funders and with Ultrasurf in December and made public last month over the objections of what he describes as "multiple parties," were startling: "We find that it is possible to monitor and block the use of Ultrasurf using commercial off-the-shelf software," he wrote. The security vulnerabilities, he warned, could present "life-threatening danger in hostile situations." He provided technical evidence to refute claims on the Ultrasurf website that user activity would be rendered "untraceable," stating that "Ultrasurf not only leaves traces on the network level, it additionally leaves traces on the system where it is used" -- your computer. He also discovered that Ultrasurf's engineers had failed to keep their servers updated with the basic security "patches" necessary to protect against attackers.

Ultrasurf refuted a number of Appelbaum's technical claims. While the developers fixed some other security problems pointed out in Appelbaum's report, Ultrasurf argued that the tool "is not designed primarily as a privacy tool" but as an anti-censorship tool. They pointed out that while Tor's developers work hard to make their tool as secure as possible for users, and openly publish its source code so that its workings and defects are well known, China's censors have managed to block Tor for most users. Meanwhile Ultrasurf's engineers have kept their tool accessible for use by millions of Chinese.

Even though Ultrasurf's users may be less safe than they realize, neither the State Department nor the BBG are dropping their support for the software. Instead -- given that millions of people around the world are already using it -- they are working with Ultrasurf to make it more secure and to be more open with users about its vulnerabilities. According to a BBG spokeswoman, after becoming aware of Ultrasurf's vulnerabilities, "we asked Ultrareach to submit it to further testing and a security review." The State Department has made it clear that disbursement of the current round of funding committed to Ultrasurf will be contingent on peer review, as well as revision of Ultrasurf's instructions and explanatory documentation for users, to make sure that users are aware of its strengths and vulnerabilities. "One reason we have funded a range of tools as well as training," explains Deputy Assistant Secretary Dan Baer, "is so that people can be aware of risks and tradeoffs associated with different tools."

As Xiao Qiang of the China Digital Times describes it, the two or three million Chinese Internet users who make regular, active efforts to get around censorship are using a variety of different circumvention tools -- well over half if not two thirds of which he estimates are not U.S. government-funded at all. People who work in IT-related jobs partner with friends overseas to buy their own server space and create their own private secure tunnels to an outside connection -- often making some money on the side by selling access to friends and colleagues. The security of such setups varies, but most people are focused simply on accessing banned websites and aren't thinking about surveillance. White-collar workers with credit cards use commercial "virtual private network" services -- a booming business, often run by companies about which the users know very little, and about whose security practices even less is known. Others are using "free proxy" services -- linking users to overseas computer servers whose owners are generally unknown, which work for a while before getting blocked. Others use Freegate and Ultrasurf. The more hard-core consumers of content from the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia may use another U.S.-government funded tool called Psiphon, or the most security-conscious activists may find a way to use Tor through secret bridges obtainable only directly from the project's developers. But it's a cat-and-mouse game between the authorities and the users. "As far as China is concerned none of them are reliable so people are constantly switching," says Xiao.

Chinese users generally find out about these tools through word of mouth, and teach each other how to use them. Independent security researcher Collin Anderson argues that the funders of circumvention tools for free expression and human rights purposes need to put more resources into global public education about how the Internet works along with basic principles of computer security so that people understand their risks and can make informed decisions about what tools to use: The most secure tools tend to be more difficult to use, while faster speeds and ease of use come at a security cost. "Different kinds of people have different threat models, which requires different solutions," he believes. Ultrasurf should not be used by people whose lives are in clear and immediate danger if their online activity is tracked. Such people must understand the importance of trading connection speed and ease of use for slower and more cumbersome, but safer tools, and invest the time to learn how to protect themselves properly. (While Tor, designed specifically for people seeking to evade surveillance, does not generally work in China, it does work in most other countries.)

Because every tool also has different weaknesses and vulnerabilities, Anderson argues that funders also need to support as wide a range of quality, well-documented tools as possible. "Diversity of tools will make it harder for governments to control what people are doing online," he argues. Diversity -- and healthy competition -- will keep developers on their toes. Government funders must also set and enforce strict standards for peer review, pre-release testing, quality and security standards if it they are to avoid contributing to the endangerment of activists who might unknowingly use a tool for purposes to which it is not suited.

Whether or not the U.S. government funds circumvention tools, or who exactly it funds and with what amount, it is clear that Internet users in China and elsewhere are seeking out and creating their own ad hoc solutions to access the uncensored global Internet. In China today, thanks to the government's success in nurturing a domestic commercial walled garden, circumvention technology has not been a direct driver of political change. Yet circumvention tools of various kinds have provided a lifeline for a small core of tech-savvy liberals who are becoming more active online as political uncertainty grows. Meanwhile, the recent political uncertainty is driving new demand for circumvention technology, which could make it just that much more difficult than in the past for the government to control what the Chinese public learns -- or believes -- about Chen Guangchen and this week's delicate diplomatic dance between Washington and Beijing.

STR/AFP/Getty Images


President Sarkozy's Desperate Mayday

With friends and foes ganging up on him, Nicolas Sarkozy's run for a second term is looking bleak.

PARIS – Remember May 1. Though the French election is still almost a week away, today may have been the day that hope abandoned President Nicolas Sarkozy and his run for a second term. As the French gathered in the streets to celebrate May Day, with dueling rallies around the country, a final twist of the knife may have doomed the incumbent.

And yet, it's not as if he couldn't see it coming. While France's lightning fast two-week presidential run-off between President Sarkozy and François Hollande offers something of a perfect storm for allegations of epic but nearly impossible to disprove corruption allegations and last-minute attacks over sleazy associates, it also allows for maximum impact of surprise endorsements, giving them the potential to create dramatic last-minute voter shifts. Or betrayals.

May 1 is not just a workers' holiday in France (when good leftists hit the streets), it's also a day of celebration of Joan of Arc, who the far-right National Front Party treats like their patron saint. That party's presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, recently earned nearly 18 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election -- an unprecedented tally, though not enough to get her into the run-off. It did make her into something of a kingmaker, though -- or a king killer. Sarkozy has worked to draw Le Pen's sizable support into his camp, but Le Pen it seems, would rather burn him at the stake. It's been quite a show.

Thus far, the remarkably substance-less run-off campaign has been driven largely on empty rhetoric, personality, and the candidates' styles. On one side, there is the warm-milk candidate, Hollande, an Average Joe of the sort that rarely rises to the top in presidential politics. On the other, there's the tough-talking Sarkozy, a politician capable of channeling a political persona a few notes shy of a character on The Soprano's. Do the French want warm milk in bed or a third double shot of espresso at the counter -- every day for the next five years?

If France was like the rest of the democratic world, you might expect Mr. Tough Guy to kick Mr. Nice Guy's ass. And the numbers might appear to back him up. After all, while Hollande won the 10-candidate first-round with nearly 29 percent of the vote, the majority of the electorate picked politicians with more natural ideologically affinities for President Sarkozy, who picked up 27 percent of the vote. Le Pen grabbed her eye-catching 18 percent, the historically center-right parliamentarian François Bayrou (who was a minister alongside Sarkozy a decade ago) picked up 9 percent, and another conservative earned nearly 2 percent.

Do the math: Sarkozy appears to have a reservoir of 56 percent affinity to tap into, so he should be riding toward an easy victory -- or at least he would be in a more conventional parliamentary democracy. In such countries, a politician of Sarkozy's variable but largely right-wing stripes would simply negotiate endorsements from the leaders of near-enough parties, horse-trading on particular issues and offering promises of ministerial appointments. It's something that should come naturally to Sarkozy, a trained lawyer who is strongly inclined toward finagling agreements.

The reality, though, is that Sarkozy faces huge obstacles. More than half of the electorate feels intense Sarko fatigue (a feeling that various party leaders can relate to). It isn't just that 73 percent of the electorate didn't vote for the president in the first round; most people say that they actively voted against him (even if they dispersed their anti-Sarkozy vote among many candidates).

Le Pen knows those voters well. Early on Tuesday in an interview on Europe 1 radio, she highlighted the president's changing stances on an issue that is important to her anti-immigrant electorate: giving foreign residents the right to vote in local elections. It is a part of the Socialist platform and Sarkozy's campaign has been pounding the left on the issue -- even though Sarkozy repeatedly suggested in the past that it was a good idea. "He is in favor," Le Pen said, except "when we are in an electoral period."

She went on to note her "long memory" of Sarkozy's promises on the 2007 campaign trail, when he wooed the far-right successfully enough to humiliate her father, the National Front's previous presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, before ignoring many of those same pledges. "What has he done since then?" Marine asked. "He is capable of saying everything and anything to get elected."

Still, politicians often play up the weaknesses of politicians who they will ultimately rally behind. (Think Santorum and Romney.) In a parliamentary democracy, it can be a part of the negotiation.

It is not inherently any more serious than the disdain that Le Pen and Bayrou have repeatedly expressed toward Sarkozy's leadership style, personality, and policies in recent years. Yes, suddenly backing him might undermine their credibility with rile supporters, but party leaders have overcome far more, especially in exchange for a share of power. Besides, Sarkozy has been flattering Le Pen's voters in the run-off.

The president is aware that his relentless vertigo-inducing ideological lane changing has created suspicion about him all across the right side of the political spectrum. Many center-right voters were offended by his populist rhetoric (aimed at seducing the far right) and about numerous ethical questions, not to mention his deficit spending, while far-right voters feel that he failed to deliver on promises to limit immigration, crackdown on entitlement cheats and petty criminals, and stem the influence of Islam, which some perceive as a sort of cultural invasion.

In fact, it was the tenor of Sarkozy's 2007 campaign that pushed the formerly center-right Bayrou to the center of France's political spectrum (and closer to the Socialist Party leadership, who would, by and large, come out as Social-Democrats if they weren't convinced that it would lead the left wing of the party to abandon them). But with various polls suggesting that Bayrou's supporters will divide fairly evenly between Sarkozy and Hollande, the president has made his tactical decision.

Sarkozy could eke across the 50-percent threshold on election day, if he earns the lock-step support of Le Pen's followers. While a recent poll indicated that 64 percent of Sarkozy's political movement wants him to come to an electoral agreement with the National Front, Le Pen has long made clear that this was unlikely while Sarkozy remained in the picture. She sees Sarkozy as an obstacle that she wants to permanently remove from the political playing field. The 43 year-old National Front leader is playing the long game. In her tactical analysis, if Sarkozy endures a career-ending defeat on May 6, it could leave his political movement in shards. This, in turn, would allow National Front voters to join together with French "patriots" to become one of the nation's primary political forces, under her leadership. And, when Hollande's response to tough economic times proves inadequate, the theory goes, Le Pen could end up with France's largest voting block. (Her inner circle has already taken to calling her the leader of the post-Sarkozy opposition.)

The National Front's jubilation over the first-round election results was clear on April 22 when Le Pen declared on television that it is "just a beginning."

"Nothing," she asserted, "will be as it was before." She then hit the dance floor to get down to 1980s-era French new wave music, projecting an image of her party that was inconceivable under her old-school far-right provocateur father.

So it made sense when Le Pen stepped up to the microphone before thousands of supporters at the Place de l'Opéra in Paris on May 1 and yelled: "I will vote blank," which is to say for neither candidate. (In France, this is perceived as a form of electoral protest.) "I will grant neither confidence, nor a mandate" to Sarkozy or François Hollande.

(More than 20 percent of first round National Front voters have suggested to pollsters that they will also vote blank, or abstain, and nearly another 20 percent -- get this! -- claim they will vote for the Socialist candidate, purely to drive Sarkozy from the political stage.)

Le Pen called the promises of France's ruling party and of its Socialist opposition "mirages," and she insisted that "there is no longer a presidential election.... We are witnessing a recruitment competition, a job interview to hire a director of operations for the [European Central Bank] under the tutelage of the IMF." The loser of the election (read: Sarkozy) will be "solely responsible" for his fate, she added.

Barring a stunning campaign twist -- the best moment for it would be the sole presidential debate on May 3 -- Le Pen may have mortally wounded the president, who trails his Socialist competitor by 6 to 12 percent, in various polls.

As President Sarkozy nurses his wounds, he'll just have to hope that someone else, through some miracle, will come and rescue him. Until then, he'll probably be hearing the echoes of today's dramatic events ringing in his ears: May Day! May Day!

Marc Piasecki/Getty Images