BEIJING — An unlikely new player has emerged to further roil the waters in Google’s clash with the Chinese government over censorship and cyberespionage: a 28-year-old Chinese computer geek who has challenged both sides in the dispute by creating a pirate version of YouTube.com.
Li Senhe launched YouTubecn.com, a fake version of the Google-owned YouTube.com, on Jan. 15, just days after Google announced that it would consider pulling out of the Chinese market if it had to continue censoring its search engine results.
Unlike the genuine YouTube, which has been blocked in China for most of the past two years, the pirate version can be accessed on the mainland without any need for the special technology that some web surfers here use to bypass the Great Fire Wall erected by Chinese censors.
The site thus uses Google’s intellectual property illegally while seeking to evade domestic censors.
“I did this as a public service. There are many Chinese surfers who don’t like to jump the wall or who don’t know how to,” Mr. Li said in an instant-message conversation with the Monitor.
Google spokesmen refused to comment on the new site, whose content and design are unmistakably based on YouTube.com, beyond denying that Google had anything to do with it.
The domain name “YouTubecn.com” is registered in the name of JinYun Qu, according to the Tucows domain registry. The US telephone number and zip code and the e-mail address associated with the site are all false.
Mr. Li, in whose real name the site had been registered until last week, said he falsified his name and contact details on the registry “so as not to get into trouble” when he found that users of his site were seeking politically sensitive videos that the censors would not permit if they found them.
Li’s original registration, giving his real e-mail address, could still be found on one website Tuesday, making it possible to trace him to his home in Guangzhou in southern China.
Plenty of confused users
The new site, which makes many, but not all, YouTube videos freely available to Chinese Web surfers, is popular with those who have come across it, to judge by chat room commentary. Users appear confused about the site, however, wondering whether it is Google’s new way of reaching a Chinese audience, or the product of a Chinese or foreign hacker.
Some complain about missing content and about server problems. Li said his site was getting 300,000 page views a day within a few days of its launch, which overloaded his US-based server. He has since limited daily access to 200,000 page views, he said.
YouTube.com, which did not always censor its material, has been blocked in China since March 2008, when the site carried a video apparently showing Chinese policemen beating up Tibetan detainees during the unrest that shook Tibetan-populated areas of China.
China has several homegrown film and video download sites, notably Youku.com and Tudou.com, both founded in 2005. They abide by Chinese censorship.
Li said he had taken some steps to avoid angering the Chinese censors, drawing up a keyword filter list, for example, to expunge sensitive material.
Searches on Tuesday for video relating to the outlawed spiritual movement Falun Gong, or to Tiananmen Square, where student protesters were brutally dispersed in 1989, brought up a “No Data” response.
Other material on sensitive issues critical of the Chinese authorities, however, has slipped through Li’s self-censorship, including an Australian TV documentary, “Repression in Xinjiang,” about the government’s treatment of the Uighur minority in the far west of China, and Western TV coverage of Tibetan monks complaining about the government.
“There is so much sensitive material that some must be missing” from his keyword list, Li said. He hoped that “loyal users and users who want this website to survive will participate in the censorship work.”
The site has no commercial purpose, Li said. Access is free, and it carries no advertisements. “I do not expect to make a profit with this,” he said. “I am doing it only for [Web] users’ convenience.”
A window on the homepage entitled “About This Site” reads: “The ‘Featured Videos,’ ‘Most Popular’ functions and search results are based on the Youtube standard API, some video may differ with Youtube.com.”
An API is an application programming interface – a plug that allows other programmers to connect to YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites with public APIs.
Li said he had used YouTube.com’s API to siphon the site’s content onto his server, building the fake version in the course of a night’s work. “I could have made it identical to YouTube, but it is better to be a little bit shanzhai,” he said.
Shanzhai, which literally means “mountain village,” is a slang term for Chinese imitation and pirated brands and goods, particularly electronics, made metaphorically in distant redoubts far from the authorities.
Little attention, so far
Li said he had not heard from Google about his piracy, and there is no indication that Google has yet issued a legal challenge to the theft of YouTube’s content, logo, and trademarked “Broadcast Yourself” slogan, nor made any other attempt to close its imitator down.
“Google would not pursue an individual,” Li said. “I don’t want to pick a fight with Google, that’s not the point of this website.”
“We certainly protect our trademarks but I have no more information on this,” said Scott Rubin, a spokesman at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California. “We do not comment on legal matters.”
Xiao Qiang, an expert on the Chinese Internet at the University of California at Berkeley, said he was “puzzled” by Google’s lack of response to what appears to be blatant theft of its intellectual property. “Do they see something for themselves in this effort?” he wondered.
Two weeks ago, Google blamed a “targeted attack on our corporate infrastructure originating from China that resulted in the theft of intellectual property” for its decision to review its operations in China.
Google is currently in delicate negotiations with the Chinese authorities over the conditions under which the company could continue to operate here. The firm might be avoiding mention of the pirate site in order not to stir up more trouble for itself, one local Internet entrepreneur who asked not to be identified suggested.
“Not many people yet know about the site,” she said. “If Google leaves it alone, nobody will talk about it. If Google talks about it, everyone will be curious.”
“If this is some techies playing around, I don’t think it has a real future,” said Dr. Xiao. “Once it starts to attract a lot of people, the censors will start laying their eyes on it. And a bigger company could not get away with it if they don’t have an agreement with Google.”
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