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How China Censors Blogs

February 17, 2009

RFA, 2009-02-16

A major new study shows how China does, and doesn't, control bloggers.

HONG KONG—China's 47 million bloggers are frequently subjected to
censorship by their Internet service providers, but politically
sensitive material also routinely falls through the cracks as individual
companies interpret government guidelines in their own way, a new report
shows.

In the first in-depth report to focus on user-generated content on
social media and blogging platforms, researchers found that censorship
levels across 15 different Chinese blogging platforms varied even more
than expected.

The report, titled "China's Censorship 2.0: How Chinese Companies Censor
Bloggers," also says "a great deal of politically sensitive material
survives in the Chinese blogosphere, and chances for survival can likely
be improved with knowledge and strategy."

China had 253 million Internet users by mid-2008, according to official
statistics from the China Internet Network Information Center.

They spend more time online than netizens in any other country with the
exception of France and South Korea.

Chinese Web surfers are also more likely to contribute to blogs, forums,
chat rooms, and other social media like photo and video-sharing sites.

According to study lead author Rebecca MacKinnon of the University of
Hong Kong, while the government lays down strict censorship guidelines
for Internet companies to follow, censorship methods vary greatly from
company to company.

"Companies do have at least some ability to make strategic choices,"
MacKinnon wrote in her report, published in the online journal First Monday.

"These choices are not only about how to balance relationships with
government and users, but also about the extent to which [companies]
value user rights and interests."

Previous studies of Chinese Internet censorship have focused on
filtering, an automated method that uses lists of banned or sensitive
keywords such "Tibetan independence" to prevent users from accessing Web
site at all.

A study by the Open Net Initiative in 2005 found China's Internet
filtering system to be "the most sophisticated in the world".

But MacKinnon said the filtering system, known as the "Great Firewall,"
is imperfect because it can be circumvented by more technologically
savvy users.

"Censorship of Chinese user–generated content is highly decentralized,"
writes MacKinnon, who is also a co-founder of the seminal blogging
platform Global Voices.

"Implementation is left to the Web companies themselves."

Some Chinese Web companies who censored in an inefficient way were still
able to stay in business, the report said, leaving "a substantial amount
of politically critical content" still available in China's blogosphere.

MacKinnon's researchers found that not a single content item was
censored by all 15 blogging platforms.

Even a test news item they posted about the banned spiritual movement,
the Falun Gong, was censored by only 13 companies; this was the highest
number of service providers to censor the same item.

An item posted across all 15 platforms on Tibet independence was
censored by just 12 of them, while an excerpt from the Dalai Lama's open
letter to the Chinese people and an item about the "Tiananmen mothers"
Web site, for those who lost relatives in the 1989 military crackdown,
were both censored by only nine companies.

Items already reported by domestic media were censored even less, while
political satire and humor were allowed the longest leash of all, the
study found.

Overall, posts related to Falun Gong, the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, and
Tibet independence were the most heavily censored, as expected.

Posts mentioning "sudden incidents," the Olympics, and corruption were
also highly likely to be deleted.

Censorship methods varied from deleting entire posts with no
explanation, to replacing offending posts with an apology note, to
hiding posts from public view, to replacing forbidden words with
asterisks while leaving the rest of the text on view.
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