Browser that Helped Chinese Overcome ‘Great Firewall’ Disappears from App Stores

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A web browser called Tuber that allowed Chinese users to bypass their oppressive government’s “Great Firewall” to access banned foreign services like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google suddenly vanished from the app stores over the weekend.

The application’s website became inaccessible and customer service failed to return calls to media organizations.

Tuber is a mobile browser whose launch in late September was touted as a major “opening up” for the Chinese internet because it allowed users to reach services like Facebook and Twitter without setting up a complicated Virtual Private Network (VPN). Many Chinese users have become proficient at using VPNs to reach foreign websites their government has banned, but Tuber allowed casual users to reach those sites more easily.

Skeptical observers noted that Tuber looked more like a compromise than “opening up” — a tacit admission by the Chinese government that too many of its subjects were gaining unrestricted access to outside information by using VPNs. Tuber blocked searches for topics forbidden by Beijing, such as “Tiananmen Square.” It also required users to register using easily tracked identity numbers, and it informed users their data could be handed over to the “relevant authorities” if they watched or shared content that “endangers national security,” “spreads rumors,” “disrupts social orders,” or other Chinese Communist Party (CCP) speech codes.

“Much about the service remains unclear, such as its origin, the motive behind it and the technology it uses to get past China’s elaborate censorship engine. The operator of the app’s official website is 70% owned by a subsidiary of Qihoo 360, a Chinese cybersecurity software giant, according to business registration information,” TechCrunch noted on Friday.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) suspected that Tuber was either an effort to lure Chinese users away from VPNs to a browser that gives the government some monitoring and censorship capabilities, or a sop to the Western world at a moment when the CCP’s authoritarianism has become a cause of international friction. The CCP might have been looking for some higher ground from which to criticize the U.S. for banning Chinese services such as WeChat and TikTok.

The SCMP noted that Qihoo 360 is the “biggest cybersecurity company in China” and its founder Zhou Hongyi is “a political adviser to the Chinese Communist Party,” so its creation was almost certainly not the act of rogue Internet freedom activists making a gesture of defiance against Beijing. Furthermore, Chinese state media applauded the release of Tuber and praised it as a bold step toward “opening up” to the West, even as those who tried using the app complained it was nothing of the kind.

“It’s fake. There’s not a single sensitive thing there,” one unhappy user told the SCMP, judging the Tuber experience to be little different from the usual “castrated” Internet available to Chinese users.

Several Internet freedom activists told the SCMP that Tuber looked like a “CCP-run honeypot” — in other words, a trap that would lure people into accessing or sharing forbidden material, at which point the Tuber administrators would rat them out to the authorities and hand over all the data needed to prosecute them.

“The cynic in me would say that it could be a way to get individuals to self-identify with having Western-centric tendencies that the regime could use against them,” said Andrew Mertha, director of China studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Tuber abruptly disappeared from the app stores run by Apple Inc. and China’s Huawei telecom giant on Saturday, after notching some five million downloads over the two weeks it was available. The app also became nonfunctional for the people who had downloaded it.

“It was unclear which agency ordered its removal, which came after Chinese users on social media hailed their newfound ability to peruse content from Youtube videos to Instagram photos without an illegal virtual private network, or VPN,” Bloomberg News reported.

Several Western media organizations said Tuber’s creators did not reply when asked to comment on the app’s removal. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijan also declined to comment when asked about Tuber at a press conference on Monday morning.

“This is not a question about foreign affairs and I’m not aware of the matter you mentioned. China regulates the Internet in accordance with laws and regulations. I’ll refer you to the competent department for more information,” Zhao said.

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