App Removed After Helping Users Bypass China’s Great Firewall
(Bloomberg) - An app backed by Chinese cybersecurity giant 360 Security Technology Inc. that allowed users to jump over the Great Firewall in Beijing was blocked and removed from mobile stores on Saturday.
The Tuber browser, which allowed users on the mainland to visit blocked websites from Google to Facebook Inc., stopped working on Saturday afternoon and could no longer be found in the Huawei Technologies Co. App Store. It was unclear which agency ordered the removal, which followed Chinese users on social media welcomed their newfound ability to read content from YouTube videos to Instagram photos without an illegal virtual private network or VPN.
Tuber removal may have ended what many Chinese users viewed as a state-sanctioned window to the broader internet arena. Beijing maintains tight control of its Internet sphere and requires Tencent Holdings Ltd. companies to do so. to TikTok owner ByteDance Ltd. to censor and clean up content that is critical of the government or its policies.
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Tuber initially appeared to give the country's 904 million online users the opportunity to legally visit overseas websites and browse foreign social media channels, much of which is banned. Cell phone number registration was required so that developers could follow activity, as all smartphone numbers in the country are linked to a unique Chinese identifier.
A 360 Security PR agent declined to comment immediately. The Cyberspace Administration of China, which regulates the Internet, did not respond to calls and emails from Bloomberg News on Saturday, a working day in the country.
"Presumably the government heard about it and asked the businesses to take it down," said Rich Bishop, CEO of AppInChina, a publisher of international apps in the Chinese market.
Mainland Chinese people often use VPNs to bypass the Great Firewall - the name given to blocking a range of foreign Internet services from Gmail to Twitter that has been in place for over a decade. Beijing regularly cracks down on illegal VPN services, eliminating such apps from Alphabet Inc.'s Android and Apple Inc.'s iOS stores.
Before being removed, Tuber was downloaded five million times from Huawei's App Store. According to online contributions, it has been available for download since at least the end of September. WeChat posts are numerous, and a reporter from state-run media company Global Times promoted the app in a Twitter post. Tuber was only made available for Android phones, according to its website.
Tuber appeared to be censoring some content, including on YouTube. A search for President Xi Jinping's name in Chinese found only seven video clips uploaded from three reports claiming to be television stations in Shanghai, Tianjin and Macau. Searching for Xi's name in English returned no results at all.
The parent company of the developer of Tuber is controlled by the billionaire and technology mogul Zhou Hongyi, who delisted his security company Qihoo 360 from New York in 2016 and joined the national interests of China. The U.S. Department of Commerce in May approved two of Zhou's companies out of 24 that it said pose national safety concerns.
Wang Huiyao, president of the Beijing-based Think Tanks Center for China and Globalization, said he remained confident that Chinese leaders will eventually open up cyberspace - to some extent.
"The Chinese Foreign Ministry recently launched an initiative to encourage cross-border data flow," said Wang. "It makes sense for Beijing to lift the restrictions on some select locations to send a positive signal to the international community."
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