US firms caught in Chinese censorship crossfire

US company operations are increasingly being disrupted due to the battle between the Chinese government's censorship plans and free speech activists.

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Companies from the United States are finding life difficult as their services are being used by citizens and activists seeking to work around China's firewall.

US tech firms, in particular those that provide cloud solutions, are being forced to walk a fine line as cloud computing becomes drawn into China's censorship fight. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, activists outside of China are turning to companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Akamai to disguise Internet traffic by tunnelling it through cloud servers run by the firms.

China's censorship barricade, known as the "Great Firewall of China," is constantly being strengthened to make open access to the Web and communicating over social media networks from the country more difficult. A number of top Alexa domains are blocked in the country, including Google.com, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Blogger and Change.org.

In December last year, Google's email service, Gmail, became another high-profile service blocked in the country. Unless citizens turn to home-brewed email services -- which can be monitored by the Chinese government -- then the use of VPNs, circumventors and tunnels are the only way to access their accounts.

While cloud services provided by US companies can cloak banned website access -- such as Facebook, Twitter, Gmail and news publications -- it holds risk for the firms themselves. These companies are being forced to walk a fine line as the censorship row escalates, and the unauthorized use of tunnels, VPNs and signing up for free accounts in order to link to blocked websites could land them in hot water as activists are breaking local laws.

Generally, the circumvention takes place without the consent of cloud providers.

However, to stop this practice, Chinese authorities would need to block full servers -- which would disrupt countless businesses, including thousands of Chinese SMBs, activists say.

Naturally, US firms are less than keen to be associated with the censorship row. In November last year, Verizon's EdgeCast cloud service was blocked in the region, while a number of cloud companies have cut off free speech-based services -- such as Lantern -- in an attempt to avoid being blocked themselves in a lucrative market.

In February, the People's Liberation Army Daily (PLA Daily), a state-controlled newspaper, warned that the Chinese military will have to go through tightened security checks and submit to tougher Internet use control in a bid by the government to "prevent penetration, sabotage by hostile forces or erosion by corrupt ideas and cultures."

Greatfire.org, a free speech and anti-censorship organization, recently unveiled an Android app which allows website access regardless of whether the site is blocked or not. The organization's approach has also been made open-source to combat censorship, and groups including Reporters Without Borders are using the system to unblock a number of domains.

Read on: In the enterprise

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