Citizen Lab Occasional Paper #1, “Search Monitor Project: Toward a Measure of Transparency“, (mirror) has been released today. This report interrogates and compares the censorship practices of the search engines provided by Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! for the Chinese market along with the domestic Chinese search engine Baidu. It is based on tests conducted between November 2007 and April 2008 focused on uncovering web sites that have been censored from search engine results.
The report finds that although Internet users in China are able to access more information due to the presence of foreign search engines the web sites that are censored are often the only sources of alternative information available for politically sensitive topics. In addition to censoring the web sites of Chinese dissidents and the Falun Gong movement, the web sites of major news organizations, such as the BBC, as well as international advocacy organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, are also censored.
The data presented in this report indicates that there is not a comprehensive system – such as a list issued by the Chinese government – in place for determining censored content. In fact, the evidence suggests that search engine companies themselves are selecting the specific web sites to be censored raising the possibility of over blocking as well as indicating that there is significant flexibility in choosing how to implement China’s censorship requirements.
This report finds that search engine companies maintain an overall low level of transparency regarding their censorship practices and concludes that independent monitoring is required to evaluate their compliance with public pledges regarding commitments to transparency and human rights. The lack of clarity in the process and the unwillingness of companies to disclose this information acts to bolster China’s current censorship policy that thrives on secrecy and unaccountability.
It is becoming increasingly clear that technology companies face a dilemma when attempting to penetrate the Chinese market. A failure to comply with China’s censorship policies can result in the wholesale blocking of a company’s entire service or significant levels of interference due to China’s filtering system. Companies that have a physical presence in China face the challenge of obtaining proper licensing and their Chinese employees may face legal threats for the foreign company’s failure to comply with China’s censorship policies. However, it is also clear that compliance with China’s censorship policies is also an unattractive option. Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! are all facing tough criticism from governments, human rights groups and civil liberties advocates as well as their shareholders for their complicity in China’s censorship policies.
While foreign search engines do provide more content than domestic search engines, the greatest benefit of having foreign search engines in China may not be increased access to information but is the potential contribution that these companies can make to further transparency and accountability in the process of censorship.
Since this report was finalized, the domestic Chinese search engine Baidu, following the foreign search engines, introduced a censorship notification indicating that it is possible to make progress through engagement. While this development may seem negligible to some and it is certainly no reason to become complacent, it is a small first step toward lifting the veil of secrecy and unaccountability that permeates China’s censorship policies.