Mirroring Uncensored News for the Masses

With support from OTF’s Internet Freedom Fund, oLink offers residents of China access to previously blocked information without ever going beyond the Great Firewall
Wed, 2022-11-09 15:27

The continued development and strengthening of conventional firewall circumvention tools has been an essential piece of the Internet freedom puzzle for years. As repressive regimes have increasingly tightened their grip and censored domestic access to information, activists and OTF partners have worked tirelessly to improve the tools available to combat such repressive measures. Success on this front has been vital for dissidents, at-risk populations, and privacy advocates alike. Yet not everyone has the will or technical know-how needed to utilize conventional tools like a VPN or the Tor Browser. In the past, such individuals in China have been left in the dark and cut off from independent news and reliable sources. Fortunately, this dynamic is beginning to change thanks to oLink – an Internet Freedom Fund-supported project run by Sound of Hope.

oLink (which stands for “Open Link”) upends the traditional understanding of firewall circumvention by granting users in China access to otherwise censored information without the user ever needing to go beyond the constraints of the Great Firewall itself. The project’s innovative censorship solution allows content providers operating in an uncensored country like the United States to “mirror” their stories on an uncensored platform and then share them with a targeted Chinese audience. Though still in a nascent stage, oLink is already working with US-government-funded media to spread essential content and is actively looking to collaborate with other agencies, news media, and NGOs to help get their content to the people of China as well. The project’s open-source tool set is now also available for download on GitHub.

Project Overview

oLink works by taking content that would otherwise be banned in China (such as a story from Radio Free Asia) and “mirroring” it on a platform like Amazon Web Services (AWS) or GitHub that is essentially too large and important to be blocked in totality in the country. Though individual pages could eventually be blocked on one of these platforms, if the Chinese government ever chose to block the entire platform itself, significant negative ramifications would ripple out across China’s domestic software and technology industries which also rely on AWS and GitHub services to survive.

After “mirroring” content and hosting it on a de facto unblockable platform, the oLink team generates a short (and therefore unrecognizable) URL and shares it via WeChat with a pre-identified Chinese audience. Once the link is shared, an individual in China can simply click on the short link (which gives away nothing about the subject matter to censors) and open a page in their default browser full of “mirrored” stories from outside news sources like Radio Free Asia. No download or other technical steps are required – and user privacy is enhanced by eliminating the need to create an account. The static pages utilized by oLink do not use cookies, nor collect or store user information. Content encryption and integrity is further provided by SSL and the platform entry point (typically either AWS or GitHub).

Although the government of China has worked to censor oLink’s efforts, it is incredibly difficult to block these operations at the WeChat level due to the use of short links generated from publicly available sites such as https://tinyurl.com. Parties looking to censor or block access to this type of shared information would need to click and access the content behind each and every shared short link in order to know what information was being shared (instead of seeing from the link address itself that the shared information was sourced from beyond the firewall). Even for a censorship regime as large as China’s, this level of granularity raises capacity issues. Adding another level of resilience, there is no oLink subdomain on GitHub or AWS (which otherwise could be blocked) and individual pages hosting “mirrored” content are randomly divided and hosted in multiple locations.

oLink in Action: The content hosted on this original Radio Free Asia link https://www.rfa.org/mandarin/Xinwen/st3-08072022063024.html has been “mirrored” by oLink and is now available on AWS via the following short link: https://tinyurl.com/2ofy6uyhThe second link contains virtually all the same content as the first, but unlike the original Radio Free Asia page, its content remains visible for anyone living behind the Great Firewall of China. A user need only click on the link to gain access (no download or installation required).

An Expanding Audience

As oLink continues to grow, the team has seen a significant rise in use by individuals living in China. The project initially targeted 120,000 monthly pageviews. Yet, since the beginning of 2022, oLink has achieved roughly 300,000 pageviews each month – all of “mirrored” content that otherwise would have been censored by the Chinese government. The majority of these views center on stories discussing politics, human rights, and religious freedom.

Once the content has been “mirrored” and converted to a short link, the tinyURL can be sent to anyone – usually via WeChat – and accessed with ease. At present, the oLink team sends the links out to a pre-identified list to help spread the news within China. This takes a considerable level of WeChat expertise and audience familiarity, as the “mirroring” of content alone will not get it into the hands of those living behind the Great Firewall. To this end, while entities and individuals are encouraged to download and operate the open-source oLink tool set from GitHub, the oLink team does offer support services for set-up and distribution of content via dynamic WeChat groups. Of note, oLink can also be utilized to provide access to more traditional circumvention tools by uploading the software to an unblockable platform and then providing a short link for people in China to download.

Those interested in using oLink, as well as those receiving distributed short links, should be aware of two limitations associated with the tool. First, although the “mirrored” content is not technically blocked by the Great Firewall itself, this does not mean accessing or sharing the content is risk-free. Short links should not be shared publicly, and users in China should be aware that individuals who have systematically promoted these links have been arrested for doing so. Users and organizations alike should understand this risk upfront, which is similar to that associated with the use of traditional circumvention tools in censored regimes. In addition, while oLink does provide access to otherwise censored information, it should not be confused with a more conventional circumvention tool that grants access to the internet writ large. Users cannot navigate from an oLink-provided page to a censored source, such as Voice of America or The New York Times. Those web addresses remain blocked by the Great Firewall and any attempted connection out to them will be met with a block page or similar form of censorship.

Going forward, the oLink team is eager to build on their early success and increase the tool’s adoption rate by collaborating with additional government agencies, news media, and NGOs to help get essential content into the hands of people of China. Individuals and organizations interested in learning more are encouraged to email [email protected]. As an open source tool, oLink can also be downloaded from GitHub by individuals, family members, or media organizations looking to help spread news beyond firewalls.

Read more about OTF’s involvement with oLink here.

About the program: The Internet Freedom Fund (IFF) is OTF’s primary way to support projects and people working on open and accessible technology-focused projects that promote human rights, Internet freedom, and open societies. The IFF accepts applications on a rolling basis through a two-step process. Applications are first submitted as concept notes. Upon positive review of an application, OTF then invites applicants to submit a full proposal. Click here to learn more and begin the application process. Note: OTF prioritizes IFF projects coming from individuals or organizations who are applying for the first time, identify as under-represented within the field, and address areas that are underfunded.