GreatFire June: Bloomberg Blocked As Well As Hundreds Of Additional Keywords On Weibo

The big question for people following online censorship in China is a simple: is censorship increasing or decreasing in China? Many cite the growth of microblogs such as Sina Weibo, as well as the total number of Internet users in China, and argue that while censorship is pervasive, overall, things are opening up. However, two developments during the month of June suggest otherwise. The first was that Bloomberg was blocked, the first time in years that a major, English-language news website was blocked. The second was that out of the 15,000+ keywords on Sina Weibo, Google and Wikipedia that we are monitoring, an additional 231 were blocked while only 24 were unblocked. It would seem that the grip on censorship is tightening.

In a curious incident, Henan News published a story mentioning the Great Firewall by name both in Chinese and English. The story was quickly deleted, but thanks to Google Cache you can still view it here.

Bloomberg Blocked - More To Come?

http://www.bloomberg.com was blocked on June 29. As a major, English-language news website, this means that Bloomberg has been singled out by the Chinese authorities. This followed a lengthy report by Bloomberg on the family wealth of Xi Jinping, the man presumed to replace Hu Jintao as Chairman of the Communist Party later this year. The obvious reason for blocking Bloomberg would be to prevent Chinese netizens from reading the story in the first place. This is not all that effective however, since blocking it only brought more attention to the story, and much of the content of the story could soon be found on other foreign media websites which themselves were not blocked. The authorities could have blocked access to the story without blocking Bloomberg altogether, as they did with a story in The Economist about the Bloomberg story on Xi Jinping. Another interpretation is that the authorities wanted to send a warning to foreign journalists in China: don't go too far, or we'll block you altogether, because bloomberg China http://www.bloomberg.cn/ which is a technical site and contains no reports of Xi Jingping is blocked even though it acquired an ICP license from Chinese authority ,  That would also be supported by the expulsion of a foreign journalist in May, the first such action since 1998. We could likely write a separate post on how foreign news organizations agree to self-censor their content in exchange for market access in China but for the purposes of this story we will assume that the authorities block the content that they want to block.

At almost the same time, the New York Times launched a Chinese edition of it's website, which has so far not been blocked. The fact that most other Chinese versions of foreign media websites are blocked suggest that this is just a question of time. Also, as we reported on July 3, the Weibo accounts of the New York Times were quickly closed on both Sina and Tencent.

Here's an overview of major news websites and which ones are currently blocked. We'll follow their progress with great interest.

English WebsiteChinese WebsiteComments
http://www.bbc.co.ukhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/zhongwen 
http://www.bloomberg.com- 
-http://www.boxun.com 
http://chinadigitaltimes.nethttp://chinadigitaltimes.net/chinese 
http://www.cnn.com- 
http://www.economist.com- 
http://www.ft.comhttp://www.ftchinese.comIndividual articles on the Chinese edition such as this one are blocked.
http://www.guardian.co.uk- 
http://www.huffingtonpost.com- 
http://www.nytimes.comhttp://cn.nytimes.comLaunched in June, 2012. Will it be blocked?
http://www.scmp.com- 
http://www.voanews.comhttp://www.voachinese.com 
http://wsj.comhttp://cn.wsj.com 

Google (Quietly) Continues To Bring Transparency To Censorship

As we reported last month, Google launched a new feature which notifies users trying to search for certain keywords that would otherwise be blocked by the Great Firewall. The new function was quickly disabled by the Chinese authorities by blocking access to the javascript file in which it was defined. Since then, Google has cleverly responded by embedding all the required code and data of what's blocked in the html file. This makes it difficult for the Great Firewall to disable this transparency function without blocking Google altogether. So far, they've done nothing and as this is written the feature is working in China.

If Google wants to, they could take this much further. If a user clicks on a URL known to be blocked, for example, they could inform the user and even offer suggestions of ways around the censorship. We'll keep following the Google vs Great Firewall battle closely.

Unblocked Foreign Websites Keep Getting Faster

As can be seen in the chart below, foreign websites that are not blocked continue the trend of getting faster in China. The data is based on average download speed of Alexa Top 500 websites not hosted in China, per month.

Loading chart..

Keywords Blocked And Unblocked

Below is a list of 231 unique keywords that were blocked in June. Only keywords that we know were not blocked before June are included. Also, there's a list of 24 keywords that were previously blocked, and were unblocked during June. As always, if you think anything is missing, please add it to our database for testing using the search bar on the top of this page. All URLs and keywords in our database are continously tested so that we can detect changes.

Other Notable Changes

Do you remember http://myspace.com? At least the people in charge of the Great Firewall seem to - they blocked it last month. On the other hand, http://www.rapidshare.com was unblocked at least as of June 1. http://www.bitly.com was blocked at least as of June 24 but the shorter domain http://bit.ly which is used for short links is still not blocked.

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Wed, Mar 19, 2014

Bing Bests Baidu Censorship

Abstract

Independent research from Xia Chu has shown that, in addition to non-China content, Bing censors a vast amount of content that is hosted inside China and which is not censored by China-based internet companies like Baidu. After communicating our issues with Microsoft, Bing removed certain censorship rules (kudos to Bing), but much work remains to be done.

We recently called for Microsoft to release its transparency report for Bing (as have others - full disclosure, Rebecca sits on our advisory board).  Microsoft has yet to respond to this request. But Xia’s independent research of Bing’s China censorship policy could be regarded as a de facto transparency report for the search engine.

In this thorough study, the results of which we have verified, Xia examined Bing's SERP (search engine results page) for over 30,000 sensitive and nonsensitive query terms, and launched these queries from both inside and outside of China. Comparing and examining these results, plus querying with special search operators, reveals unprecedented detail on Bing's China filtering practices.

The main findings from Xia’s research include:

  • Bing has a list of “forbidden” terms where no results are shown. 139 such terms have been identified.

  • Bing has a blacklist of websites that it never shows to China users. 329 such websites are identified. (5 have been lifted after our communication with Microsoft.)

Thu, Feb 13, 2014

Setting Bing's Broken Record Straight

We can also now trace complicit Bing Chinese censorship back to 2009 as highlighted by Nicholas Kristof. It looks like Microsoft has indeed changed its censorship mechanism after our research made headlines this week. But Bing is still seriously flawed on two fronts: its algorithm favors pro-Chinese government websites by default on all search terms in simplified Chinese and their front end mistakenly delivers explicit censorship of search results on some search terms for users from all over the world.

Wed, Feb 12, 2014

No error here: Microsoft deploying Chinese censorship on global scale

Microsoft says: “The results themselves are and were unaltered outside of China”. This is simply not true.

Tue, Feb 11, 2014

Bing practicing Chinese censorship globally

Our latest research indicates that Microsoft’s search engine Bing is censoring English and Chinese language search on its home page in order to exclude certain results. We have also noticed that Bing is practicing subtle censorship with search results. In both instances, Bing is filtering out links and stories that the Chinese authorities would deem damaging.

Thu, Jan 23, 2014

Massive blocking of foreign media in China

After Tuesday’s report Leaked Records Reveal Offshore Holdings of China’s Elite by ICIJ, China blocked a number of major newspaper websites. All websites below were blocked after publishing copies of the original report. They're all listed as the publishing partners for “Chinaleaks” stories on ICIJ's website. The Great Firewall rarely blocks non-Chinese websites. Many of them have published the Chinese version of the report which probably explains the unusual development.

Newspaper

Main Language

Article

http://www.icij.org

English

Chinese

http://www.theguardian.com

English

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