From an undisclosed
location in North Carolina, Bill Xia is fighting a lonely war against
From morning till well into the night, the Chinese
native plays a cat-and-mouse game, exploiting openings in Beijing’s
formidable Internet firewall and trying to keep ahead of the cybercops
who patrol the Web 24-7 and have an uncanny ability to plug holes as
quickly as Xia finds them. A member of the banned Chinese sect Falun
Gong, Xia is so fearful that Beijing will persecute his family back in
China, that he refused to be photographed for this story, reveal where
exactly he was born, or even provide his age beyond saying he’s in his
Xia is part of a small group of Chinese expatriates who are making a
modest living helping Web surfers back home get the information their
government would rather they not see. Chinese citizens hoping to read
about the latest crackdown on, say, Falun Gong or the most recent
peasant rebellion in the provinces can use technology provided by Xia’s
Dynamic Internet Technology Inc. to mask their travels to forbidden Web
Voice of America (VOA) and human rights organizations also are paying
DIT to help evade the censors and get their message out to the Chinese
masses. Says Xiao Qiang, who teaches journalism at the University of
California at Berkeley and runs the China Internet Project: "These
tools have a critical impact because the people using them are
journalists, writers, and opinion leaders."
So far, DIT,
UltraReach, and other outfits like them have lured less than 1% of
China’s estimated 110 million Net users. But Google decided in January to censor information inside China, a practice already followed by Microsoft and Yahoo!, arguing that it’s the only way the search engines can crack the Chinese market.
So Xia is convinced that the services he and others provide will become
increasingly crucial to keep information flowing and, ultimately, he
hopes, build an open society back home. "Once in a while I feel more
homesick than usual," says Xia, who says he hasn’t seen his family in
seven years. "But it’s such a great project, and it helps so many
The seeds of DIT were sown when Xia arrived in the U.S. for grad school
in the ’90s. Stunned by America’s openness, he realized his perception
of reality had been warped growing up in China. "I was a believer of
the propaganda," he recalls. And when Xia was exposed to all of the
information on the Internet, it "started tearing apart what I’d
accepted before." At the same time, the repression of Falun Gong at
home angered him, though he insists it is Beijing’s curbs on free
expression that led him to found DIT in 2001. A year later he began
building up a roster of clients, including VOA, Human Rights in China
(HRIC), and Radio Free Asia.
The simplicity of DIT’s approach belies its effectiveness. The company
distributes software, called FreeGate, which disguises the sites a
person visits. In addition, DIT sends out mass e-mails to Chinese Web
surfers for clients such as VOA, which is banned in China. The e-mails
include a handful of temporary Web addresses that host off-limits
content and springboards to other forbidden sites.
Keeping one step ahead of the censors is what this game is all about.
China’s cybercops are so efficient that these gateways typically stay
open for only 72 hours, according to Ken Berman, an information
technology director at the State Dept.-affiliated International
Broadcasting Bureau, which hired DIT and UltraReach to help make VOA’s
Web content available in China.
Yet despite being outmanned and outspent — Xia has a tiny staff, an
annual budget of about $1 million, and relies mainly on volunteers —
DIT’s customers say it has been remarkably successful. Xia’s staff
monitors the success rate of the hundreds of thousands of e-mails they
send out each day. If one gets bounced back, the language must be
scoured and the offending words detected and added to the company’s
blacklist. Workarounds are often developed, much like spammers finding
holes in a corporate e-mail filter. For instance, an e-mail that
contains "VOA" might get squelched, but one with a zero substituted for
the "O" could get through.
As Google and other U.S. search companies increasingly cooperate with
Beijing, DIT is helping the groups like HRIC break through the
firewall. Before Google began censoring its results in China in
January, HRIC appeared in the top three search results. Although
China’s Google users would have had difficulty accessing the HRIC
sites, which are blocked, they at least knew they existed. Today they
don’t appear at all in China. But thanks to DIT and others, visitors to
its Chinese-language newsletter spiked to more than 160,000 in January,
up sixfold in the past 18 months. Says Xia: "If information isn’t
available on the Internet, it might as well not exist."
Every time something momentous happens in China — and Beijing smothers
news about it — more people use his software, Xia says. In 2003, when
the SARS epidemic peaked and Chinese authorities seemed to be
withholding information, the number of DIT users spiked by 50%, he says
— and they doubled after reports surfaced in December that Guangdong
police had shot protesting villagers.
Such moments invigorate Xia, making the effort worthwhile. And by the
looks of things, the services he and his peers provide will be in
demand for quite a while to come.
By Ben Elgin, with Bruce Einhorn in Hong Kong