China’s Quiet Experiment Let Millions View Long-Banned Websites

High End Data Cables Feed Into Servers

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

In a quiet experiment of just two weeks, China provided millions of people access to long-forbidden foreign websites like YouTube and Instagram. The trial appears to signal the Communist government is moving toward giving the country’s citizens greater access to the global internet — while still attempting to control who sees what.

The Tuber browser-app, backed by government-linked 360 Security Technology Inc., appeared without fanfare late September and offered for the first time in years a way to view long-banned websites from Facebook Inc. to Google and the New York Times, albeit sanitized versions. Chinese users rejoiced in a newfound ability to directly peruse long-blocked content from a mobile browser without an illegal virtual private network or VPN.

The browser, carried on app stores run by Huawei Technologies Co. among others, suggests Beijing is testing ways to let its 904 million internet users into once-prohibited zones. While Tuber bore the hallmarks of state-style censorship and got pulled without explanation Saturday, it’s Beijing’s most significant experiment in years with greater internet freedoms.

State-sanctioned apps like Tuber offer a possible compromise — a controlled environment in which activity can be tracked and content screened, while allowing academics, corporations and citizens to exchange information. It addresses a complaint among corporations local and foreign that need to access everything from financial data to critical software tools from abroad.

“This latest development with Tuber is interesting because it could be seen as more openness,” said Fergus Ryan, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “But the way that it would actually work would mean that people who use it would be highly surveilled and the information that they are able to access via this platform is filtered by the censorship apparatus.”

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