Understanding Censorship: A Study of China’s Search Engines
Independent researcher Tao Zhu, Baker Institute public policy fellow Christopher Bronk, and Rice University professor Dan S. Wallach have co-published a white paper titled “An Analysis of Chinese Search Engine Filtering,” which offers a more detailed look at the mechanics of censorship on Chinese search engines.
The paper cites a metaphor used by another group of researchers from UC Davis and the University of New Mexico, who called China’s censorship tactics a “‘panopticon’ that encourages self-censorship through the perception that users are being watched.” A “panopticon” refers to an 18th century layout design wherein an observer in the center could watch everyone else in the building without them being able to tell whether they were being watched or not. Meaning, it was no longer the actual presence of a guard that scared the prison inmate, but the self-imposed fear of potentially being watched. Theorist Michel Foucault would later argue that all disciplinary institutions of modern society have evolved to resemble the panopticon.
China succeeds more on this level, than it does on the level of successfully filtering “sensitive” content — thanks in part to the Internet community’s clever usage of codes and alternative characters. “Ai Weiwei,” for example, became “love the future,” the latter’s Chinese equivalent (“ai wei lai”) being similar to the previously imprisoned artist’s name.
Zhu, Bronk, and Wallach programmed a crawler to automatically query a list of words — including the names of top government officials, sensitive terms, and commonly used search terms — on Baidu, Google (.cn, .com. .com.hk), Bing (.com, cn.Bing.com), and Yahoo! (.com, cn.Yahoo.com). Though the so-called “Great Firewall of China” would often tamper with Internet communication, it appears that the direction behind the filtering effort is more disorganized than one would think. According to the paper:
- The Chinese government does not necessarily make unambiguous censorship requirements of search engine companies, although we have seen evidence of a “black list” that they must follow.
- Search engine companies appear to decide, on their own, how they might perform censorship. The terms which are ﬁltered and the precise methodology with which they are ﬁltered clearly vary across the different search engines, but there are clear topic areas that are always subject to censorship: political activists and their organizations, particularly anything to do with the Tiananmen Square protests or Falun Gong.
- Some search engines maintain “white lists” of web sites that are considered “safe” for responses to any blacklisted search query.
- Chinese search engines also aggressively ﬁlter pornographic terms, although their strategies toward doing this vary and are not necessarily very sophisticated.
- Non-Chinese-language search engines also implement anti-pornography ﬁltering, but not political censorship when given queries in Chinese languages.
So is there a way to break through? The researchers certainly think so.
[W]e did ﬁnd one time when the Great Firewall brieﬂy dropped its guard. If we could effectively and efﬁciently identify these opportunities, for the limited durations when they may exist, this could lead to pointed action, directed toward arranging external content to most effectively communicate to those on the inside, reaching out to learn more.
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TAGS: Ai Weiwei • Baidu • Bing • censorship • Google • Great Firewall of China • panopticon • search engine • white paper • Yahoo
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