PROBLEM: Speech that Enables Speech: China Takes Aim at Its Coders

Cari Machet carimachet at
Sun Aug 30 20:43:30 PDT 2015

Speech that Enables Speech: China Takes Aim at Its Coders

The maintainer of GoAgent, one of China's more popular censorship
circumvention tools emptied out the project's main
<> source code repositories
<> on Tuesday. Phus Lu, the developer,
renamed the repository’s description to “Everything that has a beginning
has an end”. Phus Lu’s Twitter account's historywas also deleted, except
for a single tweet <> that
linked to a Chinese translation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “Live Not By
That essay was originally published in 1974 on the day of the Russian
dissident’s arrest for treason.

We can guess what caused Phus Lu to erase over four years’ work on an
extremely popular program from the brief comments of another Chinese
anti-censorship programmer, Clowwindy. Clowwindy was the chief developer of
ShadowSocks, another tool that circumvented the Great Firewall of China by
creating an encrypted tunnel between a simple server and a portable client.
Clowwindy also deleted his or her Github repositories last week. In a
comment on the now empty Github archive Clowwindy wrote in English

Two days ago the police came to me and wanted me to stop working on this.
Today they asked me to delete all the code from Github. I have no choice
but to obey.

The author deleted that comment too shortly afterwards.

Github, the host for both repositories, reported a DDoS attack on the days
between these two incidents. While Github has not commented on the source
of the current attack, the evidence strongly suggests
<> that a previous DDoS
against Github in March was conducted by the Chinese government
pressure the company to remove the repositories of two other
anti-censorship programs.

The Chinese government’s control of the Internet passes through regular
waves of enhanced repression, often tied to a significant political event
or protest. Many commentators have connected a current wave of media and
Internet crackdowns
a forthcoming military parade commemorating World War II in Beijing on
September 3.

But even as a peak moment in a temporary spate of repression, the
intimidation of GoAgent and ShadowSock’s creators represents a continuing
escalation by the authorities against technologists.

Chinese law has long forbidden the selling of telecommunication services
that bypass the Great Firewall of China, as well as the creation or
distribution of “harmful information”. Until recently, however, the
authorities have not targeted the authors of non-commercial circumvention
software, nor its users. Human Rights in China <>,
a Chinese rights advocacy and research organization, told EFF that, based
on its preliminary review, VPNs and circumvention software is not
specifically prohibited under Chinese law. While the state interferes with
people's ability to use such software, it has not outlawed the software

In November, Phus Lu wrote a public declaration to clarify
<>oint. In the statement, he
stated that he has received no money to develop GoAgent, provided no
circumvention service, nor asserted any political view.

Phus Lu’s caution at that time was prompted by the police questioning of
another technologist, Xu Dong, a supporter of the Hong Kong opposition
Umbrella Movement who was detained in the same month for “picking quarrels
and creating disturbances”
According to the Washington-based blog China Change, Xu Dong, who goes by
the nym Onionhacker <> online, had also been
working on censorship circumvention code. During his detention he was told
by the police that he had committed “crimes of developing software to help
Chinese Internet users scale the Great Fire Wall of China.”

Even if it's unclear what law Xu Dong had broken, if any, in November, the
legal and political climate has grown even more aggressively anti-Internet
since then. A new National Security Law
<> came into effect on July 1
, which provides the authorities with a wide remit to oversee “internet
information technology produces and services” that impact national security
(Art. 59), as well as maintain “network sovereignty”
<> (Art. 25). It seems
that is already being interpreted to include the creators of circumvention
software. A sweeping bill on cyber-security
<> is also in the

The targeting of software developers by China is a new and worrying trend,
but one that we’re seeing occur around the world. Authorities everywhere
are realising that one way to sabotage free expression is to intimidate
those who build the tools that enable that speech.

Technologists like Phus Lu, Clowwindy and Xu Dong are now facing the same
political scrutiny and intimidation in authoritarian regimes as independent
writers, publishers, poets or journalists did in Solzhenitsyn’s time. Code
is speech
and using police intimidation to compel these creators to delete their code
repositories is as serious a violation of human rights law as compelling a
writer to burn his or her own books.

It’s also as ultimately futile: while the Chinese authorities have chosen
to target and disrupt two centralised stores of code, thousand of forked
copies of the same software exist—both on other accounts on Github and in
private copies around the Net. ShadowSocks and GoAgent represent hours of
creative work for their authors, but the principle behind them is
reproducible by many other coders. The Great Firewall may be growing more
sophisticated in detecting and blocking new circumvention systems, but even
as it does so, so new code blossoms.

Meanwhile the intimidation of programmers remains a violation of the human
rights of the coder—and a blow to the rights of everyone who relies on
their creativity to exercise their own rights.




Cari Machet
NYC 646-436-7795
carimachet at
AIM carismachet
Syria +963-099 277 3243
Amman +962 077 636 9407
Berlin +49 152 11779219
Reykjavik +354 894 8650
Twitter: @carimachet <>

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