A Chinese app managed to scale China’s Great Firewall, then got taken down

October 12, 2020, 9:02 AM UTC

For a brief moment over the weekend, China’s heavily censored Internet took one step closer to being integrated with the rest of the world’s. Now, China’s Internet remains as restricted as it was before.

On Friday, the Chinese Internet-security giant Qihoo 360 launched a pair of apps, Tuber for smartphones and sgreennet.com for PCs, that allowed Chinese Internet users to view censored versions of sites like YouTube, Facebook, Google, and Twitter that are banned in China.

Pro-government voices within China celebrated Qihoo 360’s new apps.

“Exciting news!! China launched a new web browser Tuber that can connect to [Facebook], Twitter, Google, etc, without using VPN!!” wrote Rita Bai Yunyi, a journalist for the state-media outlet the Global Times, on Twitter on Friday. “I think it’s good for China’s stability and it’s a great step for China’s opening up!”

The apps did not allow unfettered access to content beyond China’s Great Firewall, a term used to describe the range of methods China’s government employs to block foreign websites and censor sensitive content. Searches on Google and YouTube for potentially controversial terms like ‘Tiananmen Square’ or ‘Xi Jinping’ did not return any results, according to Techcrunch and users in China.

However, even this censored look into Western social media platforms and search engines proved popular. On Huawei’s app store in China, users reportedly downloaded Tuber over 5 million times.

Users in China told Fortune on Monday that Tuber was not available on app stores in China and that sgreennet.com similarly could not be accessed, and Qihoo 360 did not respond to Fortune’s request for comment on why the apps had been taken down.

But experts believe that while China’s government presumably censored Tuber and sgreennet.com for allowing users to skirt China’s censorship rules, it’s also possible that Qihoo 360’s new apps may not have been viable for the foreign platforms.

Rich Bishop, CEO of AppInChina, a company that helps foreign developers publish their apps in China, told CNBC that Qihoo 360 would need to acquire licenses from foreign sites like Google in order to legally host content on its platform.

“I guess if [Tuber] started becoming popular Google themselves would probably block that,” Bishop said to CNBC.

Qihoo’s seemingly ill-fated initiative does not close all pathways for Chinese users to scale China’s Great Firewall.

Experts believe that between 1% and 14% of China’s 850 million Internet users regularly use virtual private networks (VPNs) to access foreign sites blocked in China through masking their internet behavior and routing it through other countries.

Still, for a moment, Qihoo 360’s Tuber and sgreennet.com offered Chinese users a chance to legally access sites like Facebook, Google, and Twitter for the first time in over a decade. And while the apps were taken down, the fact Qihoo 360 launched the new apps at all may be indicative that China is interested in loosening at least some of its Internet controls.

“The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently launched an initiative which promotes cross-border data flows,” Wang Huiyao, president of the Centre for China and Globalisation think tank in Beijing, told Bloomberg on Monday. “It makes sense for Beijing to lift restrictions of some selected sites as a way to send out a positive signal to the international community.”