Chinese app offers peek behind Great Firewall

But users must register with a mobile number and some content is still censored

A security guard walks past a Google sign at the China Digital Entertainment Expo in Shanghai in 2018. (Reuters File Photo) A security guard walks past a Google sign at the China Digital Entertainment Expo in Shanghai in 2018. (Reuters File Photo)

BEIJING: A developer backed by the Chinese cybersecurity giant 360 Security Technology Inc has introduced a browser that allows mainland Chinese users to access previously blocked sites like Google and Facebook, partially bypassing Beijing’s Great Firewall.

But there’s a catch: The browser, named Tuber, requires mobile number registration before use. That makes users’ browsing activities traceable and can identify people because smartphone numbers are linked to unique Chinese identification numbers. Blocked websites that can be accessed via Tuber include YouTube, Instagram and The New York Times.

The app appears to be providing a government-approved platform for the country’s 904 million netizens to legally visit overseas websites. Mainland Chinese use virtual private networks (VPN), to bypass the Great Firewall — the name given to the entity that has blocked an array of foreign Internet services, from Gmail to Twitter, for over a decade.

China regularly cracks down on illegal VPN services, eliminating VPN apps from both the Apple and Android app stores.

The app had attracted 5 million downloads on the Huawei app store as of Saturday morning. It has been available for download since at least late September, according to online posts. There are numerous WeChat posts about it, and a reporter from state media outlet Global Times even promoted the app in a Twitter post. Tuber is currently only available for Android phones, according to its website.

Tuber appears to be providing censored search results for YouTube. A search of President Xi Jinping’s name in Chinese yielded only seven video clips uploaded by three accounts claiming to be television stations in Shanghai, Tianjin and Macau. Searching for Xi’s name in English yielded no results at all.

The parent company of Tuber’s developer is controlled by the Chinese billionaire and tech mogul Zhou Hongyi, who delisted his security company Qihoo 360 from the New York stock market in mid-2016 and aligned himself with China’s national interest. The US Department of Commerce in May sanctioned two of Zhou’s companies among 24 entities it said posed national-security concerns.

A public relations employee at 360 Security declined to provide immediate comment. The Cyberspace Administration of China, which regulates the internet industry, didn’t respond to calls and emails from Bloomberg News.

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