“We’ll Know It When We’re There”

A Q&A with Martin Johnson of greatfire.org

Martin Johnson (not his real name), is a co-founder of the China-based Internet freedom advocacy collective GreatFire.org. On the condition that he not be photographed, he gave the following interview to ChinaFile at an outdoor cafe in Manhattan.

Jonathan Landreth: You've been in China, somewhere, for a while. How long?



Punching a Hole in the Great Firewall

Jeff South
In January, when the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published its exposé of the use of offshore tax havens by Chinese politicians and business moguls, the Chinese government blocked access to the consortium’s website and to...

Martin Johnson: Yeah, somewhere. A few years. Long enough that it's where I consider "home." I want to continue to live there and with the kind of work I do, I'm afraid that if my identity were to get out, it might be difficult for me to get a visa. Or not. Nobody knows. Different people tell me different things. Some people tell me I'm overreacting, and some tell me I should be more paranoid. It's impossible to know. I think they're doing a lot of punishing right now. It's not so much about actual reporters being in China or not, or the actual website being accessible or not. It's just about sending signals. After the [January 2014 International Consortium of Investigative Journalists] report, they blocked all those other [ICIJ] media [partner] sites where they've not been in English—in Spanish and French and all that, languages nobody cares about in China. That's just punishment. Also, they could very, very easily have blocked those individual pages if they wanted to, but they didn't. They blocked the entire sites.

Does that make your work more difficult and time consuming or is it simply automated?

The more you automate the more new things there are to be done. Plus, the more you automate, the more the rules change. There's a lot of work to be done. It's good for us because it gets us press coverage, which there's been a lot of recently. We really do two projects. Well, three now, with our work to unblock content, implementing “Collateral Freedom,” a project which should have a better name but it doesn't, yet. The other two are Great Fire and Free Weibo.

Great Fire is about the Great Fire Wall and the blog and all that and that's what gets us press outside of China, because that's what people know outside of China. “China doesn't have Facebook? What?” That's simplistic, and not very important, but we need to get attention to the issues so it helps us. On the other hand, censorship of Weibo matters much more directly to Chinese people, but we need support on both sides, so these two projects are pretty good.

When you speak, you say "we need." Who's "we" and why do you "need" it? Or is it a matter of wanting it?

Well, we are an organization of people, three co-counders.

You, Percy Alpha, and Charlie Smith. Can I presume that none of those are your real names?


You've met them face to face?

I haven't met any of them. We don't do that. We don't know each other. Yeah, some people think that if you do that, that you cannot work together, you cannot create trust if you don't meet and if you don't know each other, if you don't share secrets. But I don't look at it like that. I don't want to know their real identities. If it came to me by accident, I would delete it and forget it, because if I know it, it's a risk. It's on my computer somewhere. If I lose my computer somewhere or I screw up my password, then I am putting them at risk. I don't want to do that. I prefer not to be able to make that mistake.

What is the goal?

To end censorship. You can get into a sort of technical discussion of what that means. There will always be some form of censorship. There's some form of censorship here as well, and everywhere, and all that. But I guess we'll know it when we're there. If we get to the level where we can start to discuss what sort of censorship there should be, then we're done. And we can move on and we can do other things. And I'm sure all three of us would prefer to do other things.

Who funds you?

Well, we got some money from the State Department. The U.S. one, (laughs) not the Chinese one. And we got more from other sources that I can't disclose.

Private individuals?

No comment.

From the U.S.?

No comment. And I'm here to get more. What I did when I first started was very basic. It was just checking what's actually being blocked by the firewall. That's useful, but what we do now is much, much more. Again, Great Fire is good because foreigners know the Great Firewall, and it gets attention to what we do. But where we make a difference is on Free Weibo. We've scraped 40 million Weibos, including at least 300,000 that have been censored, and we allow people to search for any keywords, including all the ones that are blocked. We have about 15,000 users per day.

Why is it that Amazon Web Services became the cloud of choice for Chinese businesses? That seems to me to be the chink in the armor of the censors? If they were to shut down AWS they'd be compromising the business interests of a great number of people who would probably have something to say about it. Essentially, you're using them as a shield for your work.

Yeah, you could say that. It's them and others, too. You can do things on GitHub, Apple with apps, Gmail, too. In all those cases, though, they lost power. The Great Firewall is weaker than it used to be because of encryption. They still have a lot of control. But now, it's less through the Great Firewall and more by telling companies what to do. So, they told Apple to remove our app from the App Store in China, and they did. I want to find ways of pressuring companies not to do that. What we do on Amazon so far is the same. Amazon so far has not censored us because of pressures from China, but they might. And so, we need to find ways to make that more difficult.

We're actually ready to help them. The way I look at it, it's not easy for Apple or Amazon to deal with this. They're profit-driven companies and they look at a business deal in China and they see the conditions and if they turn it down, as a commercial company they're not doing their job. The problem is that it shouldn't really be their decision. They don't really want to censor themselves on orders from China. They'd sleep better at night if they'd didn't have to do that. I don't think they feel good about that.

Remember the 1984 Apple ad about Big Brother and all that, when Apple was the savior when the enemy was IBM? Look at that ad now when Apple's just taking orders from the censorship authorities in Beijing. What would Steve Jobs say about that? I don't think anybody at Apple is happy about that. At the same time, I understand that it happens. It would be better if there were general rules in place, even laws. Why not? I don't know how this process works. I've been focused on China for the last few years and don't know anything about how to get things done in the U.S. But if it was possible, that would be great—then Apple or Amazon or Microsoft, or whoever it is, could say, when they're asked to censor content that is not hosted in China, they could say "We can't do that, because we agreed to this set of principles," or "That would be illegal for us to do." It would help them, right? Because it wouldn't be on the table for negotiations.

What motivates you?

One reason I do what I do is that I came to see that I don't know what the future is going to be. I think it depends on what we do. I used to see the Internet as inevitably leading us to more freedom. But what happened in China in the last few years, especially around the time I started this project, got me thinking that wasn't right. Not only was the Internet becoming more controlled, but the controls were working.

The Internet is huge in China in terms of number of connected people and business and all that, but it's not changing the political situation much. That's supposed to be impossible. Say that to anybody ten years ago and they would have told you, "Yeah, you're crazy; you don't understand the Internet." I used to think they'll try to control it but they're going to fail. I used to think, "Look at the leaders of China: they're fifty-plus years old and they don't know anything about computers, right? Do they use email themselves?" But somehow they got really smart people to do what needed to be done, not to stop the Internet, like North Korea, but to turn it into something that is perfectly compatible with their way of ruling the country.

How would you describe the difference in information flows and controls in China and what you see where we're sitting right now?

(Laughs). I think it's very different. Because I think all kinds of movements start in this country from the bottom up. Anybody who has something they believe can write about it, they can organize something. It's not easy. Just because something is wrong it doesn't mean that it will be made right, but it's definitely possible. This is not a perfect system. There is not a perfect system anywhere. But less powerful people do win against more powerful people. Sometimes.

The impulse to pull myself from Facebook and shut down my email accounts grows in me every day.

If you're talking about the N.S.A and all of that, the difference is very obvious. The N.S.A. is about surveillance, but China is about access. China hasn't gotten to the stage where surveillance is perceived to be a problem, because it's just assumed. Of course the state will listen to anything they want to. Why would you question that? The problem is not that, it's that you don't have access to information. Here there is a huge debate about the N.S.A., including some very embarrassing details. Where can you find a debate in China about whether the censorship should exist or not? No, we're not there.

Having said that, the whole Snowden affair was a huge boost to the censorship authorities in Beijing and they turned it to their advantage on a huge scale. I bet every official inside the Party has been told how the Snowden affair proves that the kind of restrictions that are in place in China exist everywhere and that China is no better or worse. And if you push them on it they'll throw Snowden back at you immediately. It's not the same.