Did the Chinese censors stop worrying about Google?

We continuosly monitor more than 5000 keywords on Google, of which almost 2000 are currently blocked in China. Usually this number changes with current events. For example, when http://www.bloomberg.com was blocked in June, the keyword google: bloomberg was blocked as well. In March, when there were rumors of a coup, google: 政变 was blocked. And as the Bo Xilai scandal unfolded, you could not search for google: Heywood. However, in the whole month of September, we didn't detect one single new keyword being blocked on Google. One keyword was unblocked (google: 亡国).

It's not as if the authorities didn't have anything to censor - the conflict with Japan as well as the upcoming leadership transition provide plenty of material. And indeed, they are censoring - on Sina Weibo and probably other local websites, but apparently not on Google.

Google vs Sina Weibo

Three seemingly sensitive keywords that were blocked on Sina Weibo during September are:

  1. weibo: 克强 (as in 李克强, Li Keqiang, the upcoming premier of China)
  2. weibo: 自焚 (self-immolation)
  3. weibo: 张培莉 (Zhang Peili, wife of Wen Jiabao, the current premier of China)

However, none of these keywords have been blocked on Google:

  1. google: 克强
  2. google: 自焚
  3. google: 张培莉

At the same time, four sensitive keywords that were unblocked on Sina Weibo in September are:

  1. weibo: 薄熙来 (Bo Xilai, the previous mayor of Chongqing and Politburo member who was recently ousted from the Communist Party of China)
  2. weibo: 抗议 (protest)
  3. weibo: 大使馆 (embassy)
  4. weibo: 日领馆 (Japanese Consulate)

Again, on Google, none of the keywords have changed - the first one has stayed blocked, and the other three were never blocked in the first place:

  1. google: 薄熙来
  2. google: 抗议
  3. google: 大使馆
  4. google: 日领馆

Is it because of Googles censorship transparency feature?

In May this year, Google introduced a new feature which warns users that the keyword they are searching for may be censored. It makes the censorship more obvious, and more difficult to confuse with technical errors. The authorities initially tried to block the new censorship warning, but Google quickly improved their approach to make it more difficult to interrupt. Since then, the censors seem to have left Google alone.

Before May, 2012After

Is it because of a falling market share?

Google's share of the online search market in China at the end of 2011 was 16.7% according to MarketWatch. Google.com.hk is ranked 5th and Google.com 10th among the top sites in China, according to Alexa. Perhaps the authorities are deprioritizing Google since only a minority of users ever use it.

Is it because search is harmless compared to microblogs?

Another possible reason is that the authorities simply worry less about access to information (through search) than the creation of information (through microblogs). A recent study by Harvard supports this, claiming that

Contrary to previous understandings, posts with negative, even vitriolic, criticism of the state, its leaders, and its policies are not more likely to be censored. Instead, we show that the censorship program is aimed at curtailing collective action by silencing comments that represent, reinforce, or spur social mobilization, regardless of content. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities that are occurring now or may occur in the future.

In this context, search seems to pose much less of a threat than microblogs. So what about Baidu, by far the most widely used search engine in China? Let's have a look at the keywords we used for our Google vs Sina Weibo comparison above:

Indeed, there were no changes on Baidu concerning any of these keywords either (though we don't have data prior to September for the third and fourth of them so we can't be sure). Overall though, it does seem to suggest that there's much less movement in terms of censorship on search engines now than on microblogs such as Sina Weibo.

By the way, Picasa Web, Groups and Drive

https://picasaweb.google.com was blocked in September. Notice the S in https:// - the non-encrypted version http://picasaweb.google.com was blocked before as well. Amazingly, https://www.google.com.hk is still not blocked, allowing those Chinese users who know about it to search for any of the thousands of keywords that would otherwise be blocked.

In other good news, both https://groups.google.com and https://drive.google.com were unblocked in September and seem to work rather well in China as this is written.

Google Plus and YouTube next?

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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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