So we've talked a lot about the Great Firewall of China and how it works. Contrary to what many believe, it's not just
a giant government bureaucracy blacklisting content, but a huge ecosystem
that partially relies on unpredictability
and the lack of intermediary liability protections online. That is, rather than directly say "this and that are blocked," the Chinese government will often just let companies know when they've failed to properly block content and threaten them with serious consequences. Because of this, you get a culture of overblocking, to avoid running afoul of the demands. This is one of the reasons why we believe that strong intermediary liability protections are so important. Without them, you're basically begging for widespread censorship to avoid legal consequences.
And, in many ways, it works quite well in China. Yes, sophisticated users know how to use VPNs and proxies and to get around the blocks, but many people do not. But something interesting is happening in China right now, as one of the largest and most successful internet companies there appears to be challenging the censorship regime. First, it's important to recognize that in China, one subject that is absolutely, without question, censored, is anything relating to the Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown of 1989
. On the internet in China, it's as if the event never happened. People have tried workarounds, using euphemisms and wordplay, but eventually those get disappeared down the memory hole too. There was even that time the censors banned the term "big yellow duck,"
after people replaced the famous tanks in the "tank man" photo with giant rubber ducks:
But something odd happened yesterday. Suddenly, on Baidu (which is like the Google of China), searches related to the tank man and other symbols of the Tiananmen Square protests were showing up on Baidu. Clay Shirky, who has been living in China recently, posted details on his Twitter feed, which is well worth reading:
It appears that this is something of a reaction to the Chinese government announcing that it will be investigating Baidu's advertising practices
, following the death of a young man from cancer, who had kicked up quite a lot of attention after he had tried an "experimental" cancer treatment he discovered via an ad on Baidu. When it didn't work, he blamed Baidu for allowing the ad, and when he passed away there was a public outcry. In response, the government announced plans to investigate Baidu's ad practices. It appears that Baidu loosening the padlocks on Tiananmen Square might be a response to that, which lots of people seem to think is playing with a fire in a manner that will almost certainly leave the company burned.
Shirky has a lot more to say, including some further speculation that perhaps there was growing tension from last year, after the Chinese government basically made use of Baidu to fire a denial of service
at GitHub. The fact that the packets came via Baidu was, as Shirky notes, a PR blackeye for Baidu at a time when the company wants to expand beyond China. Shirky also deleted a tweet that originally said "this has to backfire," noting how central media and internet censorship is to the current regime.
The brief dropping of the censorship appears to be (again, Shirky notes no one knows for sure -- but many people seem to believe) Baidu trying to let the Chinese government know that it has become powerful enough to make trouble for the government, so it's not just a one way street in terms of who holds the power. Of course, that seems like an incredibly risky move to make if you really don't have enough power to stand up to the government.
We may never know all the details of what's going on, but it's a brief, if fascinating, view into some of what's going on in China today with the Great Firewall, and the increasing power of some of its most successful companies. But it's also a reminder of why we should be so thankful for strong intermediary liability protections in the US, and how not having such protections is a sure path to censorship.