China Is Unblocking Some Search Terms—but Censorship Still Thrives Online

The Communist Party's efforts to restrict political speech on the Internet have become increasingly sophisticated.
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Alexander Yuan/AP

Censorship on Sina Weibo has gotten much more complicated in recent months.

Through the testing of searches of key "sensitive" terms on the site, it has become clear that some previously-blocked search terms now return results. Don't pop open bottles of champagne to celebrate a decrease in censorship yet, however: an examination of available search results shows that it is instead merely a shift in tactics. The implementation of more targeted, subtler censorship -- including the sanitization of keyword search results to remove unwanted content -- makes the suppression of information more invisible, and harder to fight.

The change has seemingly been gradual, but more starkly came to light recently as scholars and organizations studying censorship found that Sina Weibo was no longer blocking searches for the word "六四" a common way to write June 4, the date of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. While Herdict, China Digital Times, and The Citizen Lab noted that a number of keywords and websites related to the annual commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Incident were censored in the run-up to the anniversary of June 4 in 2013 -- some of them being newly blocked and others continuations of longstanding ones -- 六四, one of the most widely-cited examples of what kinds of words are blocked on Weibo, has been inexplicably unblocked, seemingly for good, in China. Though GreatFire first reported that "June 4" was unblocked for intermittent periods in the week before June 4, the latest unblocking serves as the longest the term has ever stayed searchable.

The decision to unblock the term in China is a notable one, as the removal of keyword blocks seems on the surface to be part of a new concerted effort by Weibo to appear more open and transparent. Headline writers and China analysts at a number of international media outlets, including Reuters and The Daily Telegraph, optimistically surmised that the unblocking of the search for Xi Jinping, China's new head honcho, on Weibo ought to be seen as a loosening of restrictions on freedom of speech.

While it is true that a host of sensitive names were unblocked after the Party Congress in November 2012, the ability to search for Xi Jinping's name arguably says less about the direction of Chinese liberalization efforts and more about the development of Weibo's censorship team. In recent years, Weibo has hired more and more censors and seemingly developed better and faster algorithms for detecting the sort of content that warrants deletion, often times within minutes. Thus, a search for "Xi Jinping" will yield results, but they are often highly sanitized content from which most, if not all, critical posts have been removed.

The removal of "June 4" from the list of blocked terms -- an area of much ridicule for Weibo both in Western media and among Chinese netizens, many of whom evade the censors by using alternative coded slang to stand in for sensitive keywords -- may be a sign that Weibo has become more comfortable trusting its human censors to manually delete sensitive posts quickly and effectively. They're slowly moving away from the crutch of the keyword block, which while certainly effective at preventing the spread of sensitive information, is also at times overly broad and not responsive enough to more precise needs.

What is and is not off-limits has now become slightly harder to determine -- another step in making censorship invisible and all-pervasive.

One additional change has also raised more questions about the direction of censorship development taken by Sina Weibo. While searches for "June 4" in China and Hong Kong yield sanitized results, searches conducted for the same search term outside of the PRC -- as confirmed by tests performed via VPN connecting through the U.S., Canada, and Vietnam -- resulted in the ubiquitous-for-China reset connection error message and a two-minute timeout from Weibo.

For non-China-based users, the timeouts are an annoying penalty for searching for sensitive content, and perhaps a measure aimed at those who "scale the wall" and use censorship circumvention tools to get around the blocking of foreign websites. These users may encounter error messages rather than access the list of sanitized search results if they are accessing Weibo while using censorship circumvention tools, since these tools make it appear as if the netizens are accessing Weibo from locations outside of China.

The Democracy ReportYet such simple workarounds for this problem exist that this explanation may be insufficient. Many censorship circumvention tools allow users to maintain a "white list" of domestic websites for which they automatically rely on the user's faster Chinese connection, rather than his or her slower proxy connection. The roll-out of tailored censorship for domestic users and preservation of keyword blocks for foreign users may simply be the sign of a multi-phase transition.

Whether full-scale or piecemeal, the reduction of blanket keyword blocks is paradoxically a loss of transparency, since Chinese users no longer explicitly know when certain results are being specifically targeted for censorship -- either through a message stating results could not be shown, as was previously the case, or with a connection reset error. Before, Chinese users knew when their results were extra sensitive (most, if not all, Chinese users are aware that censors routinely work behind the scenes to delete sensitive posts), yet the new changes -- combined with other tactics documented by GreatFire like only showing search results from verified users for certain terms and delaying posts from appearing in search results -- create even more uncertainty as to the boundaries of discourse online, perhaps encouraging greater self-censorship by users. What is and is not off-limits has now become slightly harder to determine -- another step in making censorship invisible and all-pervasive.


Jason Q. Ng is a Research Fellow at the University of Toronto’s The Citizen Lab.

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