Getting Past China's Government Firewall

Steve Inskeep talks to Bennett Haselton, an American software developer who has figured out a way for computer users in China to get around the Chinese government's Internet firewall.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Even as some companies protect their businesses by complying with China's restrictions, other companies make it their business to get around them. One of their products is called Circumventor. Its developer is Bennett Hazelton, who's on the line from Seattle.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. BENNETT HAZELTON (Computer programmer, Creator of Circumventor): Thank you.

INSKEEP: So, you're sitting there at your computer in China, you're curious about some Western websites, and the Chinese government has blocked you. What does that mean, physically? What are the obstacles that stand in your way of seeing those sites?

Mr. HAZELTON: Well, if you're located in China, all the traffic in and out of China goes though some chokepoints that we call the great firewall of China, where certain web addresses are on this list so they cannot be accessed. It'll just look like the website times out.

And then certain words and phrases are also stripped out by the firewall, so pages that mentioned Falun Dafa, for example, it's a religious movement that's banned in China, and if you try to download a page that contains that phrase, it will just stop downloading and die.

INSKEEP: So how do you get around the great firewall?

Mr. HAZELTON: If you're in China, you can get someone outside China to install our software, called the Circumventor, and when you install it on a PC outside China, it creates a URL, and then your buddy outside China can email that URL to you, and you use that URL to get around the great firewall.

INSKEEP: Oh, so I go to my friend's harmless-seeming computer outside of China, and then I get to read whatever happens to be on his computer.

Mr. HAZELTON: You surf the web through their computer, so you're connected to their PC rather than being connected to the blocked website. And that's why the great firewall won't block it, because you're connecting to your friend's computer, not to the blocked website in question.

INSKEEP: How many people have bought your software in China?

Mr. HAZELTON: It's free. And we get just like a couple dozen installs per day, but each install can be, creates a URL that can be given to hundreds or thousands of people, or however many you want.

INSKEEP: If you're giving away the software, how do you make a living?

Mr. HAZELTON: Uh, I, I work on…

INSKEEP: Tough question?

Mr. HAZELTON: Well, I work on other projects that make money.

INSKEEP: Okay.

Mr. HAZELTON: I also work for Voice of America in D.C., and they partly sponsored the development of the Circumventor.

INSKEEP: Given what you and others are trying to do technically, is it possible that this entire debate could just go away because the firewall, over time, is going to break down?

Mr. HAZELTON: I don't think it will just fall apart by itself. I think one of the common conceptions about fighting internet censorship is that it will just happen by itself, that information will eventually leak one way or another. The problem is that default behavior matters a lot.

And so, while we focus on giving people a means to get around the censorship, if they make the effort, the effects of the firewall are still going to be very great, because most people are not going to make the effort and what is not filtered by the Chinese is all they're going to see.

INSKEEP: Bennett Hazelton is developer of a product called the Circumventor.

Thanks very much.

Mr. HAZELTON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Coming to you without any firewalls, this is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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