When Google first added this censorship notification to google.cn — the China-specific version of Google — its significance was largely overshadowed by the fact that they had agreed to censor their search engine at all. Following Google, Yahoo! also added a censorship notification, as did Microsoft. All three companies were grilled before Congressional Committees and human rights organizations. Now the domestic Chinese search engine Baidu — and others including Soso, Sougou, Yodao — introduced a censorship notification? What does this mean?
Yahoo! had been censoring their China-specific search engine for years prior to Google’s introduction of censorship drawing criticism from human rights and free speech advocacy organization but little from elsewhere. The open acknowledgment of censorship enabled for a much broader, well publicized debate/discussion to the complex issues of censorship in China. These “You’ve been Censored” notification raised considerable awareness of censorship in China. Of course, it came at the cost of these companies’ compliance with China’s censorship rules, arguably strengthening China’s control of the Internet.
In a recent study I compared 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. I found 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. I argued that the wide disparity among the actual web sites that these search engines censor suggests that these companies are determining what to (or not to) censor and that 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.
Since the 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. Other search engines such as Soso, Sougou, Yodao also, at least temporarily, also had a form of notification.
The downside is that these developments normalize censorship. Considering that this latest censorship targeted search terms and resulted in no results being available for those terms, this could be interpreted as a worsening of the situation.
But it is rather remarkable that Baidu has introduced a consistent censorship notification mechanism. Google, Microsoft and Yahoo! have to balance China’s censorship requirements with the pressure they receive from the U.S. Congress and human rights groups and thus have an incentive to be transparent. But Baidu is a domestic Chinese company that does not have such pressures. It is possible that Baidu introduced the notification simply to conform to what has become an industry norm.
It also suggests an increasing openness within China concerning censorship and informs Chinese Internet users — many of whom are not aware of censorship in China at all — that censorship is in fact occurring. While the introduction of censorship notification 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. It demonstrates that the leadership of foreign companies can increase transparency even within domestic Chinese companies and, as a result, reaffirms that the further efforts to improve transparency cannot be allowed to remain stagnant.
I’ve been thinking about a range of offensive and defensive strategies to that both companies and activists could pursue in order to stimulate further efforts towards transparency on the part of companies as well as within China that I hope to post soon.