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One step ahead of Chinese censors

Even as multibillion companies take part in China's censorship of the Internet, a small group of dissidents and volunteers are doing what they can to protect Chinese surfers and open up the Internet in China, with the support of Voice of American and human rights groups.

Even as multibillion companies take part in China's censorship of the Internet, a small group of dissidents and volunteers are doing what they can to protect Chinese surfers and open up the Internet in China, Business Week reports this week. Headed by Chinese expat Bill Xia, Dynamic Internet Technologies is distributing software that Chinese citizen can use to cloak the websites they visit and avoid censors' blocks. 

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."

The technology takes a page from spammers' efforts to get through spam filters: analyze failures and build up constantly updated lists of words that work and words that don't.

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. 

While DIT reaches only 1% of China's Internet users, use explodes when people want and need information the authorities are restricting. Since there appears no end in sight to Chinese restricion, things look up for DIT.

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.