September 10 2020 GM
Time: 9:00am EST / 1:00pm UTC+0
Topic of discussion: Greatfire's AppMaker
Join us during this Glitter Meetup to hear from Greatfire technologists who will share their most recent creation, AppMaker.
AppMaker is based on GreatFire's past successful work with collateral freedom, which was initially funded by OTF. The project allows anybody to create their own Android app with built in anti-censorship technology https://appmaker.greatfire.org
This means that even if your website is blocked in say, for example, China, users in China can download your app and gain access to your content (like VOA Chinese, for example: https://appmaker.greatfire.org/com.voachinese.www) It is free to create an app and it is also free for users to install the app.
Since it's launch in early August, over 500 apps have already been created using AppMaker
GreatFire will be present and available to help answer questions about the project. They can also answer questions about Envoy, the open source library that powers this app https://github.com/greatfire/envoy
Speaker: Greatfire developers
This Glitter Meetup had two featured guests: Charlie (@charlie.smith) and Martin (@martin), co-founders of GreatFire.org. They have been working on anti-censorship issues in China since 2011 and operate a bunch of different projects, highlighting blocking of foreign websites, domestic censorship, and helping Chinese get around these restrictions.
- We see that 2020 has made things crazy around the world but Chinese censorship is still the same. News and info about the coronavirus was censored early, limited information was released, we had true heroes like Dr. Li Wenliang emerge, only to see these discussions silenced. And now, China is in the midst of a (dis/mis) information war over coronavirus with the US. For example, China's expert claims the coronavirus outbreak was started in Vietnam and it reported in the Chinese local newspaper in Malaysia. Check out the notes about China’s misinformation about COVID-19.
- In early 2020 there were elections in Taiwan. Towards the elections China increased pressure, including sending warplanes close to the border. Trying to swing the vote to a more China friendly party. Lucky they didn't succeed. However, tensions between Taiwan and China are increasing. Especially after the National Security Law (and the build-up towards it), lots of people realize China can not be trusted.
- GreatFire had to move their servers out of Hong Kong.
- AppMaker is based on GreatFire's past successful work with collateral freedom, and it allows anybody to create their own Android App with built in anti-censorship technology.
- If someone wants to use AppMaker, they just have to visit appmaker.greatfire.org, choose a name for their app, add the url for their website, and upload a logo. They then hit "Submit" and the GreatFire team starts to compile an Android app based on the information which the user entered.
- Once the app is ready, a download link will appear where one can download the apk. The download link can be shared with anybody. Once they install your app on their device, they can access your website without needing a VPN or other anti-censorship tool.
- Test AppMaker with a Twitter APK.
- If you have an existing app or want to build one with circumvention included, you can use our open source library github.com/greatfire/envoy which uses the same approach as the appmaker apps
- AppMarker uses Domain fronting, ie CDNs. At the moment, they are covering the costs for anyone who creates an app. If an app really starts to get popular then they discuss this with the content owner (who would normally be paying costs if they had traffic from China). When talking about this tech, it came to the conversation Shadowsocks, a free and open-source encryption protocol project, widely used in mainland China to circumvent Internet censorship.
- AppMaker is for both content creators and users: it builds on our experience with FreeBrowser, an Android browser (based on Chromium) with builtin circumvention. AppMaker gives you an app with your own name and logo and default startpage. Once installed, the user can browse the internet freely without any other circumvention tool. It allows content creators to be proactive and help their users get access.
- For example, if someone owns a magazine, they can create an app to help people be able to access their content. And a user can also download the app to circumvent the Great Firewall. It means you can give your users the tool to be able to access your content directly, as if censorship didn't exist. Many users would create their own personal apps using this project.
- Both Charlie and Martin found that many users would create their own personal apps using this project. Many organizations, especially smaller ones, do not have the in-house technical team nor the budget to invest in trying to get around censorship restrictions. So this project was designed with them in mind (although anybody can use it). A good example is how Human Rights Foundation have used AppMaker. Another good example is Hong Kong Free Press. Their website is blocked in China, but they relaunched their Android app using AppMaker so now readers in China can access their information.
- The biggest challenge with internet censorship in China nowadays is distribution and promotion. How do you reach new users? There's a danger that you end up just serving an existing user group. GreatFire’s ambition with AppMaker is to give a range of organizations and people the tools to distribute their content to their users - while at the same time enabling those users to freely browse the full internet. The more people are involved in distribution and promotion, the more users they can reach overall.
- When we talk about AppMaker working globally, we see that it is totally possible. The team has seen that many people are creating apps using a Google url which is funny because Google is blocked in China, so these users must all be outside of China. For example: they want to create an app for Twitter, for example, because Twitter is blocked in their country, so they search "Twitter" on Google and then use the Google search result as the url for the app they want to create.
- When participants asked if AppMaker is better than a VPN, we made clear that these are different tools. AppMaker is a tool that allows content creators to proactively help their users get access. So with a VPN approach, you can tell your users “get a VPN and then visit my website”. With AppMaker approach you can tell them “download this app and you will directly get access to my content”. The goal is to get more people to get access.
- When talking about how common VPNs are among average people in China, we saw that only a small minority frequently use circumvention tools. There aren’t exact numbers but it seems that any get more than say 100-200 thousand unique users per month.
- When talking about security, and the chances of the authority knowing that a user is accessing blocked content through AppMaker, in general, the traffic is no different from the traffic going to a range of major websites hosted by CDNs. It may be possible to look at network patterns and suspect that the usage is irregular. AppMaker is using a machine learning approach to optimize the choice of nodes to connect through, which makes the apps more resilient - but it doesn't mean they can't be detected.