Who chooses what to filter?

In a very interesting article in the New York Times it becomes increasingly clear that “self discipline” is the major driving force of censorship in China. Clive Thompson reports that companies — not the government of China — are deciding what specific content to block.

American Internet firms typically arrive in China expecting the government to hand them an official blacklist of sites and words they must censor. They quickly discover that no master list exists. Instead, the government simply insists the firms interpret the vague regulations themselves. The companies must do a sort of political mind reading and intuit in advance what the government won’t like. Last year, a list circulated online purporting to be a blacklist of words the government gives to Chinese blogging firms, including “democracy” and “human rights.” In reality, the list had been cobbled together by a young executive at a Chinese blog company. Every time he received a request to take down a posting, he noted which phrase the government had objected to, and after a while he developed his own list simply to help his company avoid future hassles.

I have wondering for sometime how Google, for example, decides what sites to remove from google.cn. Does Google select the sites or are they given a list of what to block?

Brin’s team had one more challenge to confront: how to determine which sites to block? The Chinese government wouldn’t give them a list. So Google’s engineers hit on a high-tech solution. They set up a computer inside China and programmed it to try to access Web sites outside the country, one after another. If a site was blocked by the firewall, it meant the government regarded it as illicit — so it became part of Google’s blacklist.

Interesting. The implementation of censorship does even require the government to provide lists of sites or key words to block. Many people think that there are “30,000” Internet police searching out content to block when in fact the companies involved in providing Internet content, services and access are doing it themselves. Certainly, there is pressure from the government and to do business in China it is understood that one must self-censor but what is the formal mechanism?

There is a lot of talk about “local laws” but if the requirement to censor is merely implied, if it is companies rather than the government that are deciding what specific content to block then what is the true legal status of censorship in China? What laws or regulations are Google/Yahoo et al complying with? Are they just making it up as they go along?

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