"Communist Party", "Coup d'etat" and "Democracy and Freedom" are just some of the long list of search terms blocked on the Twitter-like microblogging site Sina Weibo in China. But a new service, FreeWeibo, is trying to pull back the government's control over Internet content by providing unfiltered searches on the microblogging site.
China is well-known for its widespread online censorship, which has already blocked access to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in its attempts to clamp down on user-generated content critical of the government. Sina Weibo, which has more than 300 million registered users, offers its own similar social networking services, but strictly observes government rules on censorship.
Blocking user searches for sensitive topics is one way Sina Weibo has controlled its content. But in response a new site, FreeWeibo, launched last month allowing users to make uncensored searches on the microblogging site.
FreeWeibo was started by a foreigner living in China who goes by the alias Martin Johnson. For security reasons, he declined to give out his personal details in an interview on Thursday, and only said he was a Web developer opposed to China's online censorship. In addition to FreeWeibo, Johnson also founded GreatFire.org, a site that monitors the country's censoring of sites and reported the block on Google services in China last week.
The small group of foreigners and Chinese behind FreeWeibo has ambitious aims. "We want to make it into another alternative to using (Sina Weibo's) official search. We'll offer you everything, plus all the things they didn't want you to find," Johnson said. "With FreeWeibo, it's not just about studying censorship. I want to show what it could be like if it's not censored."
The service works by tracking and storing search results on Sina Weibo, so that even if the site later decides to block the queries, FreeWeibo still has the information stored. Data is also taken from "Weiboscope", a service from the University of Hong Kong that was also designed to track censored posts on Sina Weibo.
The difference in search results between FreeWeibo and SinaWeibo can be stark. Whereas a search for "Communist Party" on Sina Weibo will show it blocked because of government policy, FreeWeibo on Thursday offered a long list of posts using the term, some of which were critical of the party.
"It's totally true. After abandoning Mao Zedong thought, China's Communist Party no longer stands for 'communal', the People's Republic of China no longer stands for 'the people'," said one post.
FreeWeibo, however, is already blocked by Chinese authorities after only a month online. Despite the censorship, the site is gaining traction and has more than a thousand visitors per day, the majority of which come from China. To access the site, these users are likely relying on virtual private networks (VPNs), which usually cost money, but can bypass the country's online censorship systems.
The hope is that FreeWeibo's user will repost the censored content onto their own official Sina Weibo accounts, Johnson said. "We are looking at things like being able to slightly change the words of those messages so that they won't automatically be deleted when posted," he said. "In that way we can make a difference, not just for the minority of people able to access the site, but for a majority of the people so that they can see these posts."
But the emergence of FreeWeibo comes as Johnson said he sees a disturbing trend in China's online censorship. Previously Sina Weibo would simply block certain search terms. But increasingly, the site is filtering out certain posts, while leaving others unaffected in the search results.
"That's a more dangerous form of censorship, because you don't know about it," he said. "If you know about it, you can at least try and get around it. But if you don't know about it, then you will say, 'Hey, this is what people think.'"