China Forces Developers Of Great Wall Circumvention Tools To Delete Their Software

from the no-programming-for-you dept

Danny O'Brien, over at the EFF's Deeplinks blog, has the story of how it appears China is pressuring the developers of tools for circumventing the Great Firewall of China to shut down their repositories and no longer offer the code. Two separate, non-commercial, developers of circumvention tools have quietly gone dark recently:

The maintainer of GoAgent, one of China's more popular censorship circumvention tools emptied out the project's main source code repositories on Tuesday. Phus Lu, the developer, renamed the repository’s description to “Everything that has a beginning has an end”. Phus Lu’s Twitter account's historywas also deleted, except for a single tweet that linked to a Chinese translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Live Not By Lies”. That essay was originally published in 1974 on the day of the Russian dissident’s arrest for treason.

We can guess what caused Phus Lu to erase over four years’ work on an extremely popular program from the brief comments of another Chinese anti-censorship programmer, Clowwindy. Clowwindy was the chief developer of ShadowSocks, another tool that circumvented the Great Firewall of China by creating an encrypted tunnel between a simple server and a portable client. Clowwindy also deleted his or her Github repositories last week. In a comment on the now empty Github archive Clowwindy wrote in English:

Two days ago the police came to me and wanted me to stop working on this. Today they asked me to delete all the code from Github. I have no choice but to obey.

The author deleted that comment too shortly afterwards.

As you may recall, back in March, China launched a massive DDoS attack on Github, targeting another tool for getting around the Great Firewall, called Greatfire. It seems equally notable that in the last week, there was another big DDoS attempt on Github.

While it may not be surprising at all that China is looking to stop tools that allow people to get past the censorship wall that the Chinese government itself has created, it still is worrisome:

Chinese law has long forbidden the selling of telecommunication services that bypass the Great Firewall of China, as well as the creation or distribution of “harmful information”. Until recently, however, the authorities have not targeted the authors of non-commercial circumvention software, nor its users. Human Rights in China, a Chinese rights advocacy and research organization, told EFF that, based on its preliminary review, VPNs and circumvention software is not specifically prohibited under Chinese law. While the state interferes with people's ability to use such software, it has not outlawed the software itself.

In November, Phus Lu wrote a public declaration to clarify this point. In the statement, he stated that he has received no money to develop GoAgent, provided no circumvention service, nor asserted any political view.

As O'Brien notes, this is a reminder that code is speech -- and government intimidation to shut down code is a form of repressing speech. Though, as with many attempts to censor, it seems like this is more for show than actual impact:
It’s also as ultimately futile: while the Chinese authorities have chosen to target and disrupt two centralised stores of code, thousand of forked copies of the same software exist—both on other accounts on Github and in private copies around the Net. ShadowSocks and GoAgent represent hours of creative work for their authors, but the principle behind them is reproducible by many other coders. The Great Firewall may be growing more sophisticated in detecting and blocking new circumvention systems, but even as it does so, so new code blossoms.

Meanwhile the intimidation of programmers remains a violation of the human rights of the coder—and a blow to the rights of everyone who relies on their creativity to exercise their own rights.

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