Sina testing subtle censorship ahead of Tiananmen anniversary

What happened?

On May 31, 2013 at 7am, we observed that searching for keywords that are normally blocked, for example, “六四事件” (June 4th incident), surprisingly returned some results and no censorship notice. This temporary lift of censorship ended at 9am but started and stopped a few more times into early afternoon, as if literally somebody was flipping a switch on and off at Sina headquarters.

Update on June 2: Sina is still constatnly swtiching between those two method.

Update on June 8: From June 3-4th and onwards, Sina Weibo seems to switch back to explicit compelte block for those keywords.

Change in Tact

To understand what is happening you need to be familiar with Sina’s various censorship methods. We observed and reported last year that Sina had implemented new tactics to censor particular keyword searches. Just days before the June 4th anniversary, Sina is again tweaking its censorship mechanisms. During the morning hours of May 31, Sina completely abandoned its old style, explicit approach to censorship, which displayed a message but no search results:

“According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results for [the blocked keyword] can not be displayed.”

No, Sina has not suddenly decided to fully support freedom of speech. On the contrary, it would appear that Sina is using more advanced and subtler methods to censor search results. All keywords mentioned below are normally explicitly and completely blocked. But each behaved a little bit differently on the morning of May 31.

Strictly filtering

The results we received when we searched for “六四事件” (June 4th incident) showed that the first page of results displayed not all results but carefully selected results. While the first results page seems to indicate that there are more than 50 pages of results, no results are shown when you click through to the next page or any page beyond the first. This censorship tactic was also employed last year for “香港” (Hong Kong) (Solidot story in Chinese).

Keyword example: “六四事件”(June 4th incident)

Delayed censorship

We have also previously reported that Sina has delayed search results for sensitive keywords.

When testing the delayed censorship tactic, we conducted two simultaneous searches of similar keywords, one sensitive and one non-sensitive. In the case of searching for results for “六四” (June 4), we used “五七” (May 7) as a control group, to be sure that search results were indeed intentionally delayed. As suspected, results for “五七” (May 7) displayed posts that were ten minutes old while the most recent June 4 posts were several hours old.

This indicates a marked improvement on Sina’s time delay censorship mechanism. Previously the default time delay was seven days. It is likely that many Sina Weibo users would find this time delay to be odd but could attribute this to a bug or a glitch in the system. With today’s hours-long time delay, most users will likely think that discussion around this topic is ongoing.

This is an example of censorship at its worst - users suspect their search term might get blocked before they search but instead of a censorship notice they are led to believe that what they are searching for is not sensitive plus not many people are saying anything interesting about the keyword anyway.

A good example of this can be found when searching for “天安门事件” (Tiananmen incident). The current search results do in fact bring up quite a bit of information about an incident which occurred in Tiananmen Square - in 1976.

Keyword example “六四” (June 4th), “天安门事件” (Tiananmen incident), 24周年 (24th anniversary) 法轮功 (Falungong)

Implicit complete censorship

Sina now returns a fake “Sorry, no results can be found” message instead of the normal censorship message that we have come to at once love and hate: “According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results for [the blocked keyword] can not be displayed.”

Keyword example: “64事件” (64 incident)

Implicit semi-censorship

Sina returned a partial censorship notice from page 2 onwards. The first page looks completely normal, leading users to believe that there are no decent search results for that keyword - why continue searching?

Keyword example: “天安门大屠杀”

V user only censorship

Some relatively low level sensitive words appear to be totally uncensored in this system. Is this the beginning of successful long tail sensitive keyword search on Sina Weibo?

Update: Earlier we said that some keywords appear to be completely uncensored. We have to admit that Sina even fooled us. Actually, all search results come from V users only. V users on Sina are like verified account on Twitter. Those users are more likely to follow the rules as they might face revoke of V status or block of account.

Keyword example: “游行” (demonstration)

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Mon, Aug 03, 2020

Announcing the Release of GreatFire Appmaker

GreatFire (https://en.greatfire.org/), a China-focused censorship monitoring organization, is proud to announce that we have developed and released a new anti-censorship tool that will enable any blocked media outlet, blogger, human rights group, or civil society organization to evade censors and get their content onto the phones of millions of readers and supporters in China and other countries that censor the Internet.

GreatFire has built an Android mobile app creator, called “GreatFire AppMaker”, that can be used by organizations to unblock their content for users in China and other countries. Organizations can visit a website (https://appmaker.greatfire.org/) which will compile an app that is branded with the organization’s own logo and will feature their own, formerly blocked content. The app will also contain a special, censorship-circumventing web browser so that users can access the uncensored World Wide Web. The apps will use multiple strategies, including machine learning, to evade advanced censorship tactics employed by the Chinese authorities.  This project will work equally well in other countries that have China-like censorship restrictions. For both organizations and end users, the apps will be free, fast, and extremely easy to use.

This project was inspired by China-based GreatFire’s first-hand experience with our own FreeBrowser app (https://freebrowser.org/en) and desire to help small NGOs who may not have the in-house expertise to circumvent Chinese censorship. GreatFire’s anti-censorship tools have worked in China when others do not. FreeBrowser directs Chinese internet users to normally censored stories from the app’s start page (http://manyvoices.news/).

Fri, Jul 24, 2020

Apple, anticompetition, and censorship

On July 20, 2020, GreatFire wrote to all 13 members of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law of the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary, requesting a thorough examination into Apple’s practice of censorship of its App Store, and an investigation into how the company collaborates with the Chinese authorities to maintain its unique position as one of the few foreign tech companies operating profitably in the Chinese digital market.  

This letter was sent a week before Apple CEO TIm Cook will be called for questioning in front of the Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. The CEOs of Amazon, Google and Facebook will also be questioned on July 27, as part of the Committee’s ongoing investigation into competition in the digital marketplace.

This hearing offers an opportunity to detail to the Subcommittee how Apple uses its closed operating ecosystem to not only abuse its market position but also to deprive certain users, most notably those in China, of their right to download and use apps related to privacy, secure communication, and censorship circumvention.

We hope that U.S. House representatives agree with our view that Apple should not be allowed to do elsewhere what would be considered as unacceptable in the U.S. Chinese citizens are not second class citizens. Private companies such as Apple compromise themselves and their self-proclaimed values of freedom and privacy when they collaborate with the Chinese government and its censors.

Mon, Jun 10, 2019

Apple Censoring Tibetan Information in China

Apple has a long history of censorship when it comes to information about Tibet. In 2009, it was revealed that several apps related to the Dalai Lama were not available in the China App Store. The developers of these apps were not notified that their apps were removed. When confronted with these instances of censorship, an Apple spokesperson simply said that the company “continues to comply with local laws”.

In December, 2017, at a conference in China, when asked about working with the Chinese authorities to censor the Apple App Store, Tim Cook proclaimed:

"Your choice is: do you participate, or do you stand on the sideline and yell at how things should be. And my own view very strongly is you show up and you participate, you get in the arena because nothing ever changes from the sideline."

In the ten years since Apple was first criticized for working with the Chinese authorities to silence already marginalized voices, what has changed? Apple continues to strictly follow the censorship orders of the Chinese authorities. When does Tim Cook expect that his company will help to bring about positive change in China?

Based on data generated from https://applecensorship.com, Apple has now censored 29 popular Tibetan mobile applications in the China App Store. Tibetan-themed apps dealing with news, religious study, tourism, and even games are being censored by Apple. A full list of the censored apps appear below.

Thu, Jun 06, 2019

Report Shines Spotlight on Apple’s Censorship Practices in China

The newest Ranking Digital Rights Corporate Accountability Index makes recommendations on what companies and governments need to do in order to improve the protection of internet users’ human rights around the world. Ranking Digital Rights (RDR) works to promote freedom of expression and privacy on the internet by creating global standards and incentives for companies to respect and protect users’ rights.

In their 2019 Accountability Index, RDR looks at the policies of 24 of the world’s most important internet companies in respect to freedom of expression and privacy and highlights the companies that have made improvements and those companies that need to do more. RDR notes that:

Insufficient transparency makes it easier for private parties, governments, and companies themselves to abuse their power over online speech and avoid accountability.

In particular, the report highlights how Apple has abused their power over online speech, and notes instances of this in China. According to the report, Apple has not disclosed data around the content that it removes from its App Store when faced with requests from the government authorities.

While [Apple] disclosed data about government requests to restrict accounts, it disclosed no data about content removal requests, such as requests to remove apps from its App Store. Apple revealed little about policies and practices affecting freedom of expression, scoring below all other U.S. companies in this category.

The report makes intelligent and sensible recommendations for governments. However, the recommendations also highlight how difficult it is to have these discussions with governments like China’s.

Thu, Nov 30, 2017

About those 674 apps that Apple censored in China

Apple opened the door on its censorship practices in China - but just a crack.
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