One of the most prevalent types of censorship today is solely web-based. The Chinese government’s online blockade called the “Great Firewall” is one of the most famous examples. Usually acting out of what it considers defensive purposes, the “Great Firewall” operators have recently taken on a more offensive role that affects both China and the rest of the world: Cyber attacks launched on websites that help internet users bypass the barriers to the free flow of information. It is believed that the government-run Cyberspace Administration of China – which refused to comment on these incidents – is behind these attacks.
The victims were Github and Greatfire.org. Github is an essential resource for Chinese tech companies, providing an array of code for programmers and computer engineers. However, it also features pages that allow users to view certain blocked content. Greatfire.org is a nonprofit organization that mirrors censored information from sites like Google, BBC and the New York Times. It also copies information from Github, making both these websites attractive targets of the attacks.
Through China’s largest search engine, Baidu, the attackers infested the computers of the site’s users with malicious code. This allowed them to bombard Github and Greatfire.org with an excessive amount of service requests. Baidu served as a gateway for them to access computers and use them as launch pads for these service requests. This is called a DDoS (denial-of-service) attack, and it causes sites to crash from the overload of traffic. Signals are interrupted not only from within the country, but from all over the world. Those responsible for this digital barrage hope to use it as a way to get targets to remove content that is otherwise censored in the country. While this siege is the largest of its type, it is not the first. Greatfire.org was targeted earlier in March. Github faced the same problem in 2013. This caused uproar from computer engineers, as these attacks affect the entire site and not just the pages that are deemed problematic. This is because it is near impossible to determine which service requests are real and which are not. If these types of problems continue, there is a risk of these companies deciding that providing censored content is not worth the trouble.
While sites like Greatfire.org and Github are the true targets and main sufferers in these incidents, sites like Baidu, which are used as the terminal for hijackers to launch their attacks, are put in tough positions as well. Profits of these companies are being threatened because the culprits behind these activities not only use signals from personal computers, but also from advertising traffic as a vessel to jam up their targeted sites. By disrupting and redirecting advertising traffic that companies like Baidu depend on, they lose money. It is clear that the efforts of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) and the Chinese government to censor the web are becoming more extreme and threatening. For example, Beijing – where Baidu is based – is having difficulties supporting its tech industry due to the aggressive attempts at micro-managing the Internet. This specific hijacking of millions of computers also shows Chinese authorities’ blatant disregard for both national and international norms of Internet sovereignty.
As China’s control of the Internet gets tighter and becomes wider spread, freedom of expression suffers increasingly. While the spokesperson of Baidu stated that they would search for those responsible for the recent attacks, it is more than likely that this incident will not be the last. If these attackers continue to push for censorship by holding their opponents hostage, the affected companies run the risk of losing money and as a result, surrendering to the will of the government.