Studying Chinese blog censorship

By: rebecca mackinnon on 30 November 2008

On Thursday this past week, Beijing-based lawyer-blogger Liu Xiaoyuan won Deutsche Welle's annual prize for the Best Chinese Blog. Then on Friday he discovered that the parallel blog he keeps at had been taken down. Fortunately, being a famous blogger, he was able to call an editor at Sohu and get it restored, although the editor wouldn't explain what had happened. Ironically, Liu had just praised Sohu in an interview with the Wall Street Journal for being a more, er, considerate censor than the other blog-hosting platforms he uses:

In the past I sued Sohu for deleting my blog posts, but now I want to praise them. Sohu is the only BSP that posts notices on my blog saying, “this post has been hidden/removed for certain reasons . ” As a result, when web users visit my Sohu blog, they can know that a post has been hidden by Sohu. I think Sohu is brave to do this. I also run blogs on Sina, Ifeng, and others, but they simply delete blog posts without notifying my readers.

Last year I met Liu around the time he was trying to sue Sohu for deleting some of his blog posts. He argued that the censored posts, analyzing criminal court cases, did not contain material that violated Chinese law, and that Sohu was therefore violating his user agreement. The lawsuit didn't get very far. Liu told me at the time that he writes on a dozen or so different blog hosting services because they all seem to have different censorship criteria - so for Chinese bloggers maintaining multiple blogs is the best way to keep your writing alive on the web.

My conversation with Liu inspired a systematic study of how blog-hosting companies serving mainland China censor their users' content. All Chinese blog-hosting companies are required by government regulators to censor their users' content in order to keep their business licenses. But as Liu discovered, they all make different choices not only about how to implement censorship requirements, but also how to treat the users who get censored.

Most Chinese bloggers who want an audience inside mainland China use domestic Chinese blog-hosting services - only a very tiny minority use overseas services like Blogger or because they tend to be blocked, and even fewer have the tech skills to do their own custom Wordpress installation on their own rented server space. The aim of my research was to look at the Chinese blog-hosting services (which includes foreign brands offering services inside China to the Chinese market) and establish how much variation there is in terms of what gets censored and how it gets censored. Since it's not in the interest of people who work at blog-hosting companies to tell the truth about these things in great detail to a foreign researcher, I decided that the best way to do this would be to post a range of content across a number of blog-hosting services and track who censored what and how. With the help of John Kennedy, Ben Cheng, and some student research assistants, my team posted more than 100 pieces of content - passages from news items, blogs, and chatrooms of varying political sensitivity - consistently across 15 different Chinese blog-hosting platforms. We found that censorship levels and methods vary tremendously from company to company. I have written about some of the interesting findings that came up as we went along here, here, and here.

If I publish a chart (see below) naming who censors more than whom, it is likely that those who censor less will get in trouble with the authorities. Therefore in the chart at right I have changed all the company names to letters. Of 108 pieces of content on a variety of public affairs and news-related subjects from a variety of sources (ranging from Xinhua to dissident websites), the most censor-happy company deleted over half, while the most laid-back company censored only one. (Note that I only posted one item about FLG and one about Tiananmen because most bloggers expect those to be censored - it's more interesting to see how censorship works on topics that Chinese bloggers interested in current events might write about.)

UPDATE: In reaction to numerous queries I'm willing to disclose the list of blog hosts tested, but I will not say here on a public blog which ones correspond to the letters on the chart. The blog hosts are, in alphabetical order: Baidu, Blogbus, BlogCN, iFeng, Mop, MSN Live, MySpace, Netease, QZone, Sina, Sohu, Tianya, Tom, Yahoo! China, YCool.

Below are updated slides from presentation I gave at a recent conference discussing the details of my research results. A number of the slides illustrate the ways in which blog hosts not only censor different amounts of content, but examples of different censorship practices, with wide variation not only from service to service, but also depending on the nature of the content.

Originally posted at Rebecca MacKinnon's blog.