This year, instead of publishing its annual “Enemies of the Internet” list — a compendium of the world’s worst offenders in the fields of censorship and surveillance — media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RWB) has unblocked nine websites that have been banned by government authorities in 11 countries.
Called Collateral Freedom, the initiative restored access to the websites at 6 AM on Thursday to coincide with World Day Against Cyber Censorship. RWB circumvented the censorship through a process known as “mirroring” that puts replicas of the sites in question on servers run by powerful tech companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google.
Grégoire Pouget, the head of RWB’s new media desk, told VICE News that the organization did not partner with the companies for the operation, but rather had “paid for a [hosting] service, same as any other customer.”
He added that the effort followed the terms and conditions of the different servers, and that he is prepared to prove that RWB hasn’t infringed on any rules if the companies decide to remove the mirrored sites.
The 11 countries imposing the bans are Bahrain, Cuba, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, China, the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.
The duplicated websites include Mingjing News, a news portal blocked in China that operates from the United States, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. It covers political and social issues that are underreported in the People’s Republic because of censorship.
Another is grani.ru, a news outlet that Russia banned in 2014 for exposing infringements of press freedoms and for its independent coverage of the crisis in Ukraine.
The Cuban news site Hablemos Press, whose journalists have been targets of state-sponsored intimidation, will be available in Cuba for the first time since 2011.
The Bahrain Mirror, which was launched in May 2011 during the Bahraini uprising and almost immediately banned, can also now be accessed within the country. The site has been mirrored several times before, but its previous duplications were short-lived.
RWB is looking to big business to shield the success of its mission.
“Blocking the servers of these Internet giants in order to make the mirror sites inaccessible would deprive thousands of companies of essential services. The economic and political cost would be too high,” reads a statement on the organization’s website.
In other words, if China wants to shut down a mirror site that is being hosted by Amazon, it will also have to shut off access to all the companies that use Amazon’s services.
Internet users and free speech defenders are being encouraged to post the list on social networks with the #CollateralFreedom hashtag.
Pouget explained to French daily Le Monde that the organization had taken the necessary precautions to protect user anonymity.
“You connect to these sites using a secure http connection, so the traffic is encrypted,” he said. “All the service provider knows is that the user connected to a Microsoft site.”
RWB’s described the operation as the brainchild of GreatFire, a Chinese non-profit operated by free speech activists that has been finding ways to circumvent censorship since 2013. The group created a mirror site for Google Hong Kong, which is banned in mainland China. Despite the government block, users on the mainland have been able to access the mirrored version of Google for a year.
RWB is appealing for donations to help pay for more bandwidth in order to host the sites for as long as possible. The NGO has also posted a link to freely accessible toolsfor anyone who wants to create a mirror site and join the fight against online censorship.