How Tech Companies Can Help Overcome Chinese Censorship

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Tech firms need not compromise with Beijing in order to gain access to the Chinese market. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

LINE is an instant messaging chat application produced by a Japanese subsidiary of Naver, the biggest Internet company in South Korea. It boasts dizzying numbers for a tech company that’s only two and a half years old: over 280 million registered users, quarterly revenue of $130 million, and an estimated market capitalization value of $10 billion. Like its competitors, WhatsApp, WeChat, and KakaoTalk, LINE is seen as the new frontier where Internet users, especially those in Asia and the developing world, will communicate in the future.

Which is why it was unsurprising—though regrettable—when last week the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs published a report detailing how it reverse engineered LINE to reveal that it actively censored messages sent and received by its Chinese users. So whereas non-Chinese LINE users could chat about the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown, interviews with Falun Gong founder Li Honglin, or even erotic fan fiction featuring president Xi Jinping’s wife, those in China would receive error messages when sending notes and asterisked-out text when receiving them.

Sensitive messages are rendered as asterisks for LINE users in China. (Citizen Lab)

The revelations of LINE’s China-friendly features came alongside reports this month that Bloomberg spiked articles which linked some of China’s richest businessmen with top Communist Party politicians. The New York Times’ sources stated that Bloomberg editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler was concerned about losing access in China—the previous year, an investigative story published by Bloomberg on President Xi Jinping’s family wealth slowed the sale of the company’s lucrative financial computer terminals in the country and caused Bloomberg's site to be blocked in the country. A subsequent Times article revealed that Bloomberg terminals also censored news that might be deemed critical of Chinese politicians or the Chinese Communist Party in an effort to maintain smooth business relationships in China.

LINE and Bloomberg are not the only cases of foreign companies modifying their products or services in order to gain or maintain access to China—Yahoo, for example, betrayed the identity of activist Shi Tao in 2005 under pressure from Chinese authorities—and they won’t be the last. But the recent abrogations of their founding ideals is disappointing. What’s even more disconcerting is that the two companies (as far as we know) engaged in pre-emptive self-censorship; there is no evidence of a direct threat or order on the Chinese end—if there were, the companies would be judged much less harshly if they were to publicly reveal it—but rather Chinese authorities have made clear that this is the cost of doing business in China. 

The China scholar Perry Link uses the metaphor of an “anaconda in the chandelier” to describe how the Chinese state cajoles individuals to censor their own thoughts and words, an example that applies neatly to companies like LINE and Bloomberg:

Most censorship does not directly involve [losing your job, imprisonment, or being killed].  It involves fear of such happenings.  By "fear" I do not mean a clear and present sense of panic.  I mean a dull, well-entrenched leeriness that people who deal with the Chinese censorship system usually get used to, and eventually accept as part of their natural landscape.  But the controlling power of the fear is impressive nonetheless. […]

In sum, the Chinese government's censorial authority in recent times has resembled not so much a man-eating tiger or fire-snorting dragon as a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier.  Normally the great snake doesn't move.  It doesn't have to.  It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions.  Its constant silent message is "You yourself decide," after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments—all quite "naturally." 

Companies often try to justify that these “natural” adjustments aren’t necessarily wrong—and in fact may even serve the greater good. LINE, for instance, issued a response noting that its censorship in China “does not harm any global Line services” and Bloomberg’s Winkler allegedly compared the company’s situation to the one reporters faced in Nazi Germany—better to have limited coverage than none at all. But it would be naïve to think that other governments and powers are not taking note, and their actions may end up further emboldening other anacondas around the world.

And yet, earlier that same week, there was optimism that foreign companies could be successfully enlisted into the fight against censorship without having to do a thing. This month, the website GreatFire.org mirrored Reuters’ Chinese-language news website onto Amazon’s cloud storage service (Amazon doesn’t just sell goods: It also rents out parcels of its data centers to individuals and other companies). Because of the way this Amazon service is distributed, if Chinese authorities tried to block the newly mirrored website, they would have to shut off domestic access to all of Amazon’s cloud storage service—crippling thousands of websites which rely on it. So without intending to at all, this Amazon service has the potential to become one of the most important anti-censorship tools in the world.

And as long as they and other companies, like Google—whose own cloud hosting service are also used by Chinese activists —do not give in to government pressure, they may have figured out a way around censorship: by making their services so indispensable that cutting them off imposes significant costs on Beijing. It’s naïve to think businesses themselves can be the panacea to censorship (you still need activists like GreatFire to leverage such opportunities and a government that cares about losing business), and it may be difficult for companies like LINE or Bloomberg to follow this exact same model when they face entrenched domestic competitors like WeChat, or have to deal with the whims of the Chinese government expelling your reporters. 

Still, it’s encouraging to think that sometimes a company doesn’t have to choose between diluting their services in order to maintain access and withdrawing from the country altogether.

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

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