A new app that is currently available in China allows access to popular websites on the other side of “the Great Firewall” such as Google, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Entitled Tuber, the new app has been welcomed by some as a sign that China’s internet restrictions may be easing, but treated with suspicion and disbelief in other quarters.
After an initial wave of curiosity and social media comments about Tuber, it’s become increasingly unclear whether it really has been sanctioned by the Chinese authorities, with mentions of it on Chinese sites such as Baidu and Weibo rapidly disappearing even as we write this article.
According to its description on Chinese Android store, Tuber is a “free VPN accelerator” that allows you to “watch YouTube videos in high-speed” — the landing page of the app is a scrolling feed of recommended YouTube videos, while the name and logo also echo Google’s video site. Based on publicly available data online, the developer of the app is a subsidiary of China’s cybersecurity giant Qihoo 360.
Although a number of sites that have not been readily available in China for years also seem accessible when using Tuber, it has not taken long for some users to notice that the app is a censored portal — politically sensitive news and certain keywords are seemingly still banned.
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As reported by one Reddit user who has tested the app, while people are able to access mainstream news websites including the BBC, The New York Times and CNN through Tuber, searches for terms such as “Hong Kong protests” or even “PornHub” go nowhere.
In addition, sign-in for Tuber is mandatory and phone number verification is required, prompting concerns over data privacy — Chinese citizens’ and residents’ personal identity information is closely tied to cell phone numbers.
Initial optimism about a pushing back of some of the country’s sweeping internet controls was quickly dampened as less than one day after news of Tuber first emerged, coverage of it began to disappear from Chinese websites — relevant information about the app on Chinese search engine Baidu or microblogging platform Weibo now appears to have been wiped.
It’s all a bit bizarre and, right now, it remains unclear what Tuber’s future may be.
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