Tag Archives: censorship

Censorship Gets Better, Automated And Cheaper

Screenshot of paper entitled Research on Sensitive Information of Internet News published in the April 2021 edition of the Journal of Chinese Computer Systems

WORD REACHES US of a breakthrough in the ability of artificial intelligence (AI) to filter information online with a degree of accuracy previously unachieved.

According to a paper in the Journal of Chinese Computer Systems, entitled Research on Sensitive Information Recognition of Internet News, researchers at Shenyang Ligong University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences claim their new AI is 91% accurate in blocking ‘harmful information’.

In addition, unlike previous AI, which has achieved 80% accuracy rates, it does not need to be trained by humans but can be self-taught through deep machine learning. Internet companies employ armies of humans to check and censor content manually, augmentations to older software systems that rely on keywording and are only 70% accurate.

The researchers also say their AI can keep up with the expanding volume of content on the internet and the rapid evolution of online language used to get around content filters. The use of homonyms to avoid sensitive words is a particular challenge for censors of Chinese text.

The AI is partially based on software Google developed more than five years ago to let it understand the context in which users of its search engine were using search terms.

While there is a universal need to censor online content that promotes criminal activity, terrorism, pornography and human trafficking, China also has a particular demand for blocking political content deemed sensitive.

The AI advance should cut the cost of censorship and opens up a potentially lucrative export market for automated censorship systems, decreasing the economic price of political repression for authoritarian governments.

While no censorship system is ever likely to be 100% effective, better-than-90% effectiveness would be good enough to keep mass political movements from taking hold.

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China’s Press On Academic Freedom

Cambridge University Press, a leading academic publisher whose China Quarterly is one of the leading English-language social science journals devoted to China has reversed its decision to comply with the demands of China’s censors to block sensitive content.

The university press had initially removed some 300 China Quarterly articles on politically sensitive topics from its website in China on the instruction of the media regulator on penalty of not being allowed to publish at all in China.  The press changed its mind following protests, including a petition published by academics from around the world, condemning restrictions on academic freedom of thought.

It was a dilemma that many foreign businesses have faced: the choice between being shut out of the Chinese market for refusing to comply with authorities’ controls of markets or suffer reputational risk outside China by knuckling under. In information markets, the reputational risk of complying with controls on freedom of expression is potentially a higher cost for an academic institution that it would be for a commercial technology or media company. Online content providers,

Chinese and foreign, have been a particular focus of the censors’ attention this year, as online content, previously more laxly regulated than offline media, has been brought under the same control regime as traditional print and broadcast media.

Tech groups and media companies have bowed to government demands to close down hundreds of mobile video platforms and promised to work more closely with state media. Under the new cyber security law that came into force on June 1, only those online content creators who have been issued with a media licence are permitted to upload videos featuring news or political commentary.

This has reinforced Chinese firms’ pre-emptive self-censorship, and more foreign firms to accept specific demands.

Beijing has to tread a careful line with foreign academic publishers. While censoring politically sensitive material is one thing — and social scientists in Chinese universities, once an important source of policy advice to government, have come under greater freedom of expression constraints since President Xi Jinping took over in 2012 — it is another cutting off the country’s scientists and technologists from the latest foreign academic research in those fields.

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China Finds Justification For Social Media Censorship In UK Riots

Never waste a crisis, they say, even one not your own. China’s state media have been quick to jump on remarks by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron in the wake of England’s “mass incidents” of recent days on the need to control the use of social media that were used to organize the riots and looting. From an article on Xinhua, entitled “Britain’s U-turn over web-monitoring“:

Learning a hard lesson from bitter experience, the British government eventually recognized that a balance needs to be struck between freedom and the monitoring of social media tools….

..the Internet is also a double-edged sword that cuts both ways. For the benefit of the general public, proper web-monitoring is legitimate and necessary.

Just saying.

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Battling The Google Hegemony

Google as a modern-day British East India Company, exercising imperial hegemony in the American interest, is the theme of an editorial by Zheng Yan, published by the People’s Daily at the end of last week and widely reposted on local websites such as QQ since (English translation via China Media Project). The author, identified near anonymously as “a web user”, touches on a well-scratched nerve of national shame, but the piece is worth a read as it more than just another knock at the American search and media company. It represents yet more string to the nationalist bow, a perspective of social media held in Party circles not as a liberating force but as a tool of national interest, and another Orwellian reason that freedom lovers should stand in the way of Google’s world domination. In its corner, China stands ready to fight the good fight.


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Cablegate: Details Of The Google Hack Published

The allegation that a Politburo member irked by finding critical comments after googling his name was behind the hacking of the U.S. search media company Google late last year was trailed when the publication of the U.S. State Department cables by WikiLeaks first started. Now the cables in question have been made public (via Guardian).

The source of the accusation is a “well placed contact” of an officer at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. The operation against Google was reported to have been coordinated out of the State Council Information Office without having “been discussed more widely in the Party”. It started with orders to the three big state-owned telecoms companies to stop doing business with Google. When this failed to get Google to remove the link on its (censored) Chinese site to (uncensored) google.com, the pressure was escalated into the December 2009 cyberattack. Google went public about the hacking, which was when, the cable suggests, the broad party leadership became aware of events.

The campaign, according to this contact was “100% political”. However, other contacts of the embassy claimed that a top leader was working with Google’s domestic rival Baidu against the American company and that there was a perception, promoted by the government, than the U.S. government and Google were working together to undermine Chinese government controls on the Internet and thus exerting “cultural hegemony” and interfering in the country’s internal affairs. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech last January on internet freedom in which she came down in support of Google, without giving any indication that her officials suspected a top-level Chinese leader as being behind the attacks on it, may, perversely have reinforced that view. Given the concerns in Beijing about about the high-resolution satellite imagery on Google’s mapping software, Google Earth, that would not have taken much doing.

The cable also reported that contacts in the technology industry had told embassy officials that that Chinese interference in the operations of foreign businesses is widespread and often underreported to U.S. parent companies.

[Name redacted] noted the pronounced disconnect between views of U.S. parent companies and local subsidiaries. PRC-based company officials often downplayed the extent of PRC government interference in their operations for fear of consequences for their local markets. Our contact emphasized that Google and other U.S. companies in China were struggling with the stated Chinese goal of technology transfer for the purpose of excluding foreign competition. This consultant noted the Chinese were exploiting the global economic downturn to enact increasingly draconian product certification and government procurement regulations to force foreign-invested enterprises (FIEs) to transfer intellectual property and to carve away the market share of foreign companies.

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China Gives First Reaction To Leaked U.S. Diplomatic Cables

Beijing’s first public comment on the leaked U.S. State Department cables published by the online whistleblower WikiLeaks has been a short, sharp no comment from the foreign ministry. These are already choppy waters for the U.S. not much worth China stirring up further at this point.

Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei did add that “We hope the U.S. side will properly handle relevant issues”, the issues being taken to be the leaking rather than the substance of the leaks. We hear of some smug tut-tuting among some officials at what is seen as another sign of American government weakness and incompetence.

Among the censoring classes, we understand, there is a more sobering view that the leaks only reinforce the value of their work and a need to redouble efforts. We wonder, though, if nagging at the back of some minds is the thought that there but for the grace of God…, and even a tiny concern that it is a case of when not if a whistleblower leaps the Great Firewall with 250,000 state documents.

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Spinmasters Winners Of Obama’s Shanghai Town Hall Meeting

U.S. President Obama’s town-hall meeting in Shanghai turned out to be much ado about nothing: generous words for his hosts, and no contentious issues like trade or Tibet tackled head on, just generic and diplomatically couched praise for the universal values of freedom of religion, speech and political expression, with the code words used resonating more outside the country than in. Indeed, much of the human rights message may well have ben aimed more at Obama’s audience at home, where he is being criticized for giving China a free pass on the subject.

Most Chinese, of course, would have been unable to see the meeting as it was only broadcast locally in Shanghai and not on national TV (as former President Bill Clinton’s equivalent was when he visited China). State media reports concentrated on Obama’s more upbeat remarks about the Sino-American relationship:  “the United States does not seek to contain China’s rise and he welcomes China as a ‘strong, prosperous and successful member of the community of nations'”, Xinhua reported.

Foreign press seem to have been at a different meeting. Their headlines are dominated by the U.S. president’s call for greater internet freedom for Chinese (in response to a question e-mailed to the U.S. embassy in China, so how much of a coincidence is that?) The meeting was webcast (reluctantly on the Chinese side) but, despite pre-meeting briefings of Chinese bloggers by American embassy and consulate staffs, much off the online discussion is taking place outside the country since social media sites like Twitter and Facebook are blocked. Obama’s call for greater Internet freedom in China was taken off the NetEase’s home page by the censors within half an hour.

Two worlds, two messages. As the U.S. president heads for snowy Beijing and the business end of the visit, both sets of spin masters must be satisfied with a job well done in Shanghai.

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Software For Supercensors

The crack down on Internet sites — including this time search engines Baidu and Google — in the name of stamping out pornography has some new software at is service. But these new tools are intended to help authorities “to spot risks of subversion much earlier and root it out more efficiently,” according to an FT report quoting Beijing TRS Information Technology, China’s leading provider of search technology and text mining solutions.

He Zhaohui, marketing manager at TRS, told the FT that his company is now increasingly selling text-mining software that lets censors monitor and forecast public opinion rather than take down dangerous talk after it happened.  Speaking more frankly than is probably prudent for someone selling surveillance software (one market niche he identified was for government departments that wanted to spy on others), He touted the software as making censors much more efficient, productive and analytical in their surveillance.

He claimed that such technology could have prevented the Shanxi brick kiln slavery scandal causing the damage it did to the country’s image. It was internet postings by parents searching for their kidnapped children that first led to the discovery that hundreds of children had been sold into slavery at illegal brick kilns. The software could have picked up on that early.

No doubt it could have been applied to the postings on the kidneystonebabies web site set up by the parents of children afflicted by the melamine-tainted infant formula scandal. The site has become a focal point for parents unhappy with the compensation they are being offered. Its founders were briefly detained late last week.

Software, of course, has no moral compass of its own. Dissidence among desperate parents is much the same to it as dissidence among students, democratic-minded intellectuals and human rights activists.

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IOC’s Rogge Denies Web Censorship Deal With China

Was there or wasn’t there a deal between China and the International Olympic Committee to restrict foreign journalists’ access to sensitive web sites, as at least one IOC official has indicated?

IOC president Jacques Rogge, speaking on the issue for the first time, says “I’m adamant in saying there has been no deal whatsoever to accept restrictions. Our requirements are the same from host city to host city and remain unchanged since the IOC entered into a host city contract with Beijing in 2001.”

Access is now being allowed to some previously blocked human rights sites, including Amnesty International’s (at least for foreign journalists if not most Chinese) but other sites remain off-limits or with blocked parts less than a week before the Beijing Games begin.

These unsightly wrangles over censorship, along with the persistent problems with Beijing’s air quality and the stories of doping among athletes were not the final week’s build-up to the Games the authorities were planning for.

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Hu Meets Foreign Journalists

President Hu Jintao doesn’t give many press conferences. So his 70-minute meeting with a handful of foreign journalists in Beijing was highly unusual. A rare sighting for both sides of a little understood breed.

Hu appealed to the journalists not to politicize the Olympic Games due to open in Beijing little over a week. Nothing much new there, or in anything else Hu said. He told his visitors they were welcome and should abide by Chinese rules and regulations. “We also hope you will provide objective reports of what you see here,”  he said — which can mean whatever you want it to. Just as not politicizing the games can mean one thing to Chinese and another to foreigners.

At the same time China is trying to diffuse the row over foreign journalists’ access to internet sites by removing the blocks at the Olympic media centers to some proscribed sites including those of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

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