Where is Microsoft Bing’s transparency report?

On Friday The Guardian published an opinion piece I wrote on a tricky  issue related to Chinese Internet censorship and the role of multinational companies.  It begins:

Microsoft was accused this week of extending the Chinese government’sinternet censorship regime to the rest of the world through its Bingsearch engine. I don’t believe that Microsoft intended to do that, but the company is by no means off the hook.

After conducting my own research, running my own tests, and drawing upon nearly a decade of experience studying Chinese internet censorship, I have concluded that what several activists and journalists have described as censorship on Bing is actually what one might call “second hand censorship”. Basically, Microsoft failed to consider the consequences of blindly applying apolitical mathematical algorithms to politically manipulated and censored web content.

Click here to read the rest.

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Mediapolicy.org: China’s Digital Evolution

(This blog post was originally published at the Open Society Foundation’s Mediapolicy.org)

The Chinese Communist Party may have completed its once-in-a-decade leadership transition, but the future of media in China remains as unclear as the rest of China’s political and economic future.

Since Xi Jinping was anointed as China’s top leader last week, a close reading of the freshly-brewed political tea leaves favors gradual, messy evolution over any sudden Internet-led revolution. Those who prefer to read research reports instead of tea leaves will draw similar conclusions after reading OSF’s recently-published Mapping Digital Media China report – even though it was completed well before the leadership transition. According to the report’s authors, the emergence over the past decade of a “vibrant online civil society” in China provides grounds for optimism in the long run. Yet this vibrant online world will continue to coexist with a “sophisticated party-state propaganda and control system” whose grip on broadcast media, licensing of digital services, spectrum allocation, and professional news content production shows few signs of loosening.

Indeed, analysis of last week’s 18th Communist Party Conference indicates an intention to maintain as firm a grip as possible. In a thorough examination of the of the new CCP Standing Committee, Cheng Li, a scholar of Chinese politics at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, pointed out that key liberals in the Politburo, particularly Li Yuanchao who is known to support liberal intellectual demands for rule of law and greater government accountability, were not promoted to the Standing Committee as expected. Cheng concludes that “China’s much-needed political reform may be delayed.” And without political reform, meaningful media reform is unlikely.

Chinese proponents of free expression and media reform are also disheartened by the elevation of Liu Yunshan, head of the propaganda department, known as a faithful enforcer of party discipline on the media. His efforts to bring the Internet to heel have included a licensing system for online service providers and a requirement that microbloggers register their accounts with their real names and ID numbers. As dissident writer and former journalist Dai Qing recently lamented to the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong-based newspaper: “Liu’s appointment has reduced our hopes that citizens will be allowed to monitor their government and spread information freely over the next decade.”

Yet online social media – particularly the home-grown microblogging services known in Chinese as “weibo” – are nonetheless forcing more transparency and accountability upon Chinese bureaucrats and news media. Despite strict controls on news media coverage of the party congress, combined with elaborate attempts by social media companies to block the most edgy words and phrases from their services, netizens nonetheless managed to analyze and criticize the proceedings on Sina Weibo, the most popular of China’s Twitter-like social media platforms. Government offices at all levels now recognize the need to engage with the public on weibo: According to the state-run Xinhua News Agency there were over 51,000 government micro-blog accounts by the end of September.

The authors of the MDM China report place these developments in a broader, more sobering media context. They cite government survey data indicating that roughly 30 percent of the internet-using population – about 10 percent of the nation’s total population – actively participate in online discussions or post their own opinions and observations online. The report also reminds us that the majority of Chinese people have yet to use the internet at all: “the internet is still beyond the reach of 800 million Chinese who rely almost exclusively on television for their information and entertainment, in particular the mammoth state broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV).”

China’s news organizations – particularly the more commercially-oriented ones serving local and regional markets – like news organizations everywhere, are working hard to innovate through creative use of digital technologies. However their ability to conduct independent investigative journalism, and actually publish or broadcast these investigations in their newspapers or on television, is severely constrained by strong party and government controls. Individual journalists have been able to use blogs and microblogs as an alternative distribution channel for some news and information, though the result is that news organizations do not directly benefit from their staff’s most cutting-edge investigative talents. Meanwhile, websites that are not part of government-approved news organizations are not allowed to conduct original news reporting – although online media companies are constantly seeking ways to subtly get around the strict rules about who can report news under what circumstances, particularly on local stories.

When it comes to television – which remains the most important and powerful form of media for the majority of Chinese – the government naturally controls the switchover process from analog signal to digital. It also controls which companies are allowed to participate in the provision of bundled internet, voice, and digital TV services – as well as who is allowed to create what sorts of content disseminated through these services. The same of course goes for mobile services of all kinds. When it comes to allocation of spectrum, politics “plays a decisive role in spectrum allocation policies.” There is no notion of “public service media” independent of party and state which “view themselves as the overseers of the public interest.” Yet there is no process by which the bureaucracy – often a patchwork of different agencies and departments – determines the broader public interest as they go about creating and enforcing rules and regulations.

The report makes a number of recommendations:

  • Media literacy. With “hundreds of millions of people with little knowledge or understanding of how the media are used and how they might use the media,” greater media literacy education for all ages would “help educate people to participate in public life so that the opportunities which digitization brings can be more widely enjoyed.”
  • Relaxation of government and party controls on media. This would make it more possible for journalists to carry out independent, investigative journalism that would hold authorities accountable to the public interest.
  • Constrain local government abuse of power over media. The central government should take “measures to end the pattern of violent retribution, harassment and victimization meted out to journalists or whistleblowers by local offcials angered by critical media coverage.”
  • Passage of a press law. This would be consistent with existing national policy of governance based on rule of law. A specific press law “can help prohibit administrative control and interference in the media.”
  • Official tolerance and support for press freedom organizations. Such organizations would “defend press freedom and the independence of media from the government and help address a crisis of ethics in the profession.”
  • Independent public service media. A “non-commercial, non-profit, public radio and television system” would help to “guarantee the dissemination of education, science, health, and other content to feed an information-hungry populace.”
  • Better coordination and stakeholder collaboration on the digital switch-over process. There is currently no clear process for mediating different bureaucratic, economic, commercial, and public interests. The report argues that “there should be the means for collaboration between industry players, especially broadcasting companies and mobile operators. Close collaboration between the principal stakeholders— the government, regulators, broadcasters, transmission providers, receiver manufacturers and retailers, and consumer representatives—is essential.”

The results of this month’s leadership transition provide little reason to expect that these things will happen in the near or even medium term. In the long run, however, the report’s authors remain hopeful. The internet, they write, “cannot change China’s political life in a dramatic way. It can, however, enhance the existing social capital, so that social forces that are operating independently of the state can have a chance to grow and prosper.”

Foreign Policy: Google Confronts the Great Firewall of China

Last week I wrote a piece for Foreign Policy analyzing Google’s decision to roll out a new feature warning Chinese Internet users if they type a search term that could trigger censorship by the government’s network-level “Great Firewall.” In a nutshell:

For the first time, Google is making it crystal clear to Chinese Internet users that their frequent connection problems while using its search engine are caused by the Chinese government, not by its own systems. According to Alan Eustace, Google’s senior vice president for knowledge, the purpose of this feature is to “improve the search experience in mainland China.” Users are given the option to “refine their searches without the problem keywords” in order to “avoid connection problems.” What Google executives won’t discuss — at least publicly — is the obvious fact that they are exposing the Chinese government’s censorship tactics in an unprecedented way.

Read the whole piece here.

Meanwhile, in the week since it was published there have been some developments and reactions worth noting. Google has declined to publish a list of all the characters and phrases it has found likely to trigger censorship. But that did not stop different groups from reverse-engineering the list. It is now available on greatfire.org (explanation in English) and atgfw.org (explanation in Chinese).  It also didn’t take long for the engineers working on the Great Firewall to ramp up the arms race by another notch, blocking Google’s nifty pop-up alerts warning users about censored terms. Here is how the anonymous team at greatfire.org, a website that tracks Chinese Internet censorship from within China, reported on the situation:

Within a day, they disabled the new Google feature by blocking the javascript filethat contains the code altogether. This of course makes us wonder what Google’s next move will be. It would be very easy to rename the file or to embed it on the html page making it more difficult to selectively block features.

Going forward, there is much more that Google can do. Rather than just informing users that a search query has been censored, they could offer ways to get around it. The most obvious one would be to redirect users (automatically or manually) to the encrypted version of Google which is still not blocked in China (https://www.google.com.hk).

The fact that this functionality was rolled out, and not just on Google Hong Kong but actually any Google search engine that is accessed from China, shows that Google is actively working on ways to get around censorship in China.

Independent Beijing-based technology researcher Dave Lyons, who I interviewed for my piece, has a more cynical take about Google and its motivations over at the rectified.name blog:

While many people in China know that Google doesn’t always work because of government blocking, I’d bet that the vast majority of Internet users don’t know, or care for that matter, because if you’re planning a vacation to [丽江] [LiJiang, in Yunnan Province] where you want to stay in a [锦江之星] [MianJiang ZhiXing, the name of a hotel] which search engine are you going to use? The one that says: “Sorry, can’t use those words” or are you instead going to use one of those nice search engines that just deletes any politically sensitive search results and serves up those travel links? So while Google describes the move as “improving our user experience from mainland China,” from a user perspective this doesn’t really change anything unless you’re a political dissident trying to find the latest banned words, like a broken soda machine that always gives you Fresca no matter what button you push now has sign saying “In need of service: all buttons serve Fresca.”

Chinese internet users truly committed to seeking banned or sensitive information for the most part already have circumvention tools, and will use the regular Google.com like they did before, so this doesn’t really help them much unless they want vague confirmation from Google that a term is blocked. And this isn’t likely to earn Google any new friends in the Chinese government, which it already sees as in cahoots with the US State Department. If Google were serious about this, they would develop their own built-in circumvention tools, but they won’t — because that’s a bridge too far — and so I can’t help but think that the real audience for Google’s move isn’t in China but in the halls of Internet governance organizations like the ITU and global users who, they hope, will start having warm, fuzzy feelings about Google as a fearless advocate for free speech. Good luck with that.

Foreign Policy: The Shawshank Prevention

In Chapter 3 of my book I described how Internet censorship works in China. Foreign social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and many Google services are blocked by the “Great Firewall” of China, so most Chinese Internet users spend their time on social media services run by Chinese companies which are required to carry out heavy political censorship. Most recently, the name of the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng  has been censored on the Chinese social media platform Weibo – and so was the name of the Hollywood movie Shawshank Redemption. Why? Because once it became impossible to mention Chen’s name directly, Chinese netizens used the movie about a prison break to allude to Chen’s dramatic escape from house arrest.

In Chapter 12 I described the political fights in Washington that came to a head in 2010 and 2011 over  the State Department’s “Internet freedom” policy and, specifically, which projects should receive U.S. government funding to build tools that help people in China and elsewhere circumvent Internet censorship.  My latest article published Wednesday on ForeignPolicy.com gives an update on how circumvention tools are used in China. I conclude:

Whether or not the U.S. government funds circumvention tools, or who exactly it funds and with what amount, it is clear that Internet users in China and elsewhere are seeking out and creating their own ad hoc solutions to access the uncensored global Internet. In China today, thanks to the government’s success in nurturing a domestic commercial walled garden, circumvention technology has not been a direct driver of political change. Yet circumvention tools of various kinds have provided a lifeline for a small core of tech-savvy liberals who are becoming more active online as political uncertainty grows. Meanwhile, the recent political uncertainty is driving new demand for circumvention technology, which could make it just that much more difficult than in the past for the government to control what the Chinese public learns — or believes — about Chen Guangchen and this week’s delicate diplomatic dance between Washington and Beijing.

Read the whole thing here.

The Not-So-Great Firewall of China

My latest piece in Foreign Policy discusses social media as a battlefield for public opinion in China. An excerpt:

China’s censorship and propaganda systems may be complex and multilayered, but they are obviously not well coordinated. Writing in the Guardian this week, dissident artist Ai Weiwei declared that while China’s Internet censorship system may be the envy of autocrats worldwide, China’s leaders need to understand that in the long run “it’s not possible for them to control the Internet unless they shut it off.” He was half right: While the Chinese government’s tactics may be ham-handed and likely doomed to failure in the long run, they are working well enough to keep the Communist Party in power for the short to medium term.

You can read the whole thing here.