FreeWeibo, however, is already blocked by Chinese authorities after only a month online. Despite the censorship, the site is gaining traction and has more than a thousand visitors per day, the majority of which come from China. To access the site, these users are likely relying on virtual private networks (VPNs), which usually cost money, but can bypass the country's online censorship systems.
The hope is that FreeWeibo's user will repost the censored content onto their own official Sina Weibo accounts, Johnson said. "We are looking at things like being able to slightly change the words of those messages so that they won't automatically be deleted when posted," he said. "In that way we can make a difference, not just for the minority of people able to access the site, but for a majority of the people so that they can see these posts."
But the emergence of FreeWeibo comes as Johnson said he sees a disturbing trend in China's online censorship. Previously Sina Weibo would simply block certain search terms. But increasingly, the site is filtering out certain posts, while leaving others unaffected in the search results.
"That's a more dangerous form of censorship, because you don't know about it," he said. "If you know about it, you can at least try and get around it. But if you don't know about it, then you will say, 'Hey, this is what people think.'"