Chinese Paper Takes Down Story on Great Firewall's Creator

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Last Friday, a fascinating profile of the man who engineered China's Internet filtering infrastructure ran in the Global Times, which is owned by the People's Daily, the news organ of the Chinese Communist Party. It didn't draw too much attention, just a mention in the Los Angeles Times' tech blog and a few smaller sites.

The interview glossed how he built what is considered the world's most sophisticated country-level Internet filter -- and how he drew criticism when he briefly started a blog. Apparently, 10,000 Chinese Internet users left him comments and as the Global Times delicately put it, "Few were complimentary."

To my eyes, there was something a tiny bit subversive in the interview. The story's lead is that Binxing uses six virtual private networks to test and circumvent his own Internet filtering system. But he follows up that admission by saying, "I only try them to test which side wins: the GFW or the VPN. I'm not interested in reading messy information like some of that anti-government stuff." That's not exactly a radical sentiment.

Nonetheless, some time between Saturday morning and today, the Fang Binxing story was scrubbed from the Global Times website. The URL of the story now redirects straight to the Global Times homepage and searches within the site and visits to the "special reports" section confirm that the story no longer exists on the site.

Of course, there's always the cached version of the story. Here are the three pages of the story: 1, 2, and 3. I reproduce the first page here to ensure it stays in the public record:

The father of the Great Firewall of China (GFW) has signed up to six virtual private networks (VPNs) that he uses to access some of the websites he had originally helped block.

"I have six VPNs on my home computer," says Fang Binxing, 50, president of the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. "But I only try them to test which side wins: the GFW or the VPN.

"I'm not interested in reading messy information like some of that anti-government stuff."

There's a popular joke circulating the Chinese mainland about Mark Zuckerberg's surprise visit to Beijing around Christmas last year: The frustrated Facebook president is said to have pleaded with local Chinese entrepreneurs to show him how to beat the Great Firewall.

"Ever since I landed here in China I can't log onto my Facebook account!" he tells them.

The joke might not be real, but the Great Firewall of China is very much alive, blocking the world's most popular websites including YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and WikiLeaks.

Fang's handiwork brought down on him an intense barrage of online criticism in December when he opened a microblog on Sina.com.

Within three hours, nearly 10,000 Web users left messages for the father of the Great Firewall. Few were complimentary.

Sacrified for the country

As a self-described "scholar," Fang says he was only doing the right thing, and anyway, sticks and stones.

He confirms he was head designer for key parts of the Great Firewall reportedly launched in 1998 that came online about 2003.

Fang shut down his microblog account after a few days and has kept mum about the incident until now.

"I regard the dirty abuse as a sacrifice for my country," Fang says. "They can't get what they want so they need to blame someone emotionally: like if you fail to get a US visa and you slag off the US visa official afterwards."

This massive accumulation of sarcastic and ugly abuse of Fang all stemmed from his role in creating a technology that filters controversial keywords and blocks access to websites deemed sensitive.

Fang refuses to reveal how the Great Firewall works. Crossing hands over chest, he says, "It's confidential."

As to the future of his creation, that's not up to him, Fang says.

"My design was chosen in the end because my project was the most excellent," he says with a big, tight smile, then pauses. "The country urgently needed such a system at that time."

The year 1998 was a turning point for the development of the Internet in China, says Zhang Zhi'an, associate professor of the journalism school at Fudan University in Shanghai.

It was when portals Sina. com and Sohu.com first appeared and the number of Chinese mainland Web users hit 1 million. It was also when the government began paying serious attention to the Internet, he says.

"Building the Great Firewall was a natural reaction to something newborn and unknown," Zhang says.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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