Censorship in China: A public-private partnership

Censorship in China: A public-private partnership
Researchers have found that most Chinese Web firms, such as Baidu, censor posts by curating sets of sensitive keywords. Photo: Reuters
Published: 4:02 AM, August 25, 2014
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While living for more than a decade in China and using its thriving social media, no question came to mind quite as often as this: “Who is the idiot who just censored that online post and what on earth was so dangerous about it?”

Needless to say, I was hardly alone in my frustration. While online social media has transformed civil society in China, creating an outlet for anyone with a computer to share views on entertainment (the most popular topic), sports and, of course, politics, most users have at one time or another come up against the limits of free expression on the mainland.

The one impediment to Chinese people connecting as a whole for the first time was, and is, their government.


As a group of Harvard University researchers showed in a study published in Science, however, responsibility for this state of affairs rests with social media platforms as much as the Chinese regime.

Censorship in China has evolved into a kind of private-public partnership, with the government setting the parameters and Internet companies free to “innovate” in finding ways to meet them — at their expense.

The system is a perverse form of blackmail: If the firms do not play ball, they risk attracting users who defy the state’s edicts on information.

The Harvard group used subterfuge to conduct their study, setting up their Internet bulletin board in China, where users could foster and engage in online discussions. The software to run the board did not include censoring tools (necessary if you do not want to be shut down).

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