Censorship and Search: Baidu and the Chinese Dilemma

Yesterday, Rebecca MacKinnon of RConversation fame, testified before the US Congress on China’s censorship policies, especially with regard to domestic internet companies, and how those policies affect US investors.

Overall, her talk was nuanced and, I felt, quite accurate, but I do fear that given her audience and the preconceptions they’re likely to harbor, she may have given slightly the wrong impression.

Much of her talk focuses on self-censorship, or as the Chinese government prefers to call it, “self-discipline”. Ms. MacKinnon’s actual text is pretty fair, I think, but Baidu in particular certainly doesn’t come out of it well. There are two chief issues at play here, or to put it another way, two crimes of which Baidu stands accused: misleading advertising practices and overly vigorous censorship practices.

The advertising issue is essentially twofold. First, some people contend that what, exactly, is paid content and what is actual search results on Baidu is unclear. Second, some have suggested that the exodus of Google has led to absurd numbers of paid links being placed in search results.

When making a comparison with Google, it’s undeniable that it is less evident what’s an advertisement and what isn’t on Baidu, because there is no color underlay ((Actually, there are some advertisements on Baidu that appear at the top of search results with a color underlay as on Google, but for now we’ll ignore those as no one is complaining about them.)). However, all paid results seem to be marked with the characters “推广“. The characters are the same font size as the other text on the site, and they appear at the end of each listing, in gray. It’s easy to miss if you aren’t looking for it, but I can’t see anyone being tricked by that more than once or twice, especially as a native reader of Chinese. ((In my own experience, I find non-native speakers tend to “tune out” anything that isn’t clearly the core content and so probably would be more likely to ignore the 推广 notification because its placement makes it clear it is information about the webpage rather than information from the webpage, and non-native readers are likely to read as little as possible, for time purposes if nothing else.))

As for the absurd number of paid results, that appears to depend very much on what you search for. In her testimony, Rebecca MacKinnon cited a search for the term ”games“ (”游戏“) that returned ten paid results before the first real result. I am inclined to agree this is excessive. One would expect that on a search engine, after searching, one could see search results without having to scroll down at all. That seems reasonable, especially given today’s large screen sizes. On the other hand, I am now complaining about having to scroll down — perhaps this is a bit nit-picky. In any event, other search terms fare much better. A search for “console games” (“电视游戏”) returned no paid results. Neither did searches for “soccer” (“足球”), “World Cup” (“世界杯”), or even, rather surprisingly, “clothes” (“衣服”). Other searches turn up some, but not ten, paid results; ten appears to be the maximum possible number of paid results, and while that is a bit much, it doesn’t seem to be the norm, even with search terms you would expect to draw hordes of advertisers.

The other accusation leveled at Baidu specifically, and the one I think may be unfair, is that Baidu is more trigger happy than other domestic companies when it comes to censorship. To support this, MacKinnon compiles the results of several studies, including one of her own. For her methods, I suggest reading her paper, which is fascinating, but the short version is that her team found after some fairly rigorous testing that Baidu ranked third among 15 blog and BBS service providers in terms of how gung-ho they were about censorship. She declines to name any names specifically in the paper for fear of government repercussions against the companies that censor least, but in her testimony she fingers Baidu at third and also says that Tianya (a company Google has invested in, interestingly enough) is in first.

It’s difficult to measure scientifically how much a company censors, and it probably changes over time according to government directives; under the circumstances MacKinnon’s exhaustive research is probably about the best we can hope for unless someone chooses to leak an awful lot of secret documents from the government and major internet companies. Additionally, MacKinnon points to research from human rights groups that suggests Baidu’s search results are significantly more censored than Microsoft’s or Google’s circa 2006-2008. As of this writing, neither of these sites would load within China, so there’s no way for me to analyze their methodology, but it does stand to reason that Baidu would censor more than American companies. Why? I suspect it is mostly related to the level of scrutiny they’re under as a major company whose services are used by a huge slice of the population. MacKinnon’s research covered blogging and BBS services offered by Baidu, Blogbus, BlogCN, iFeng, Mop, MSN Live, MySpace, Netease, QZone, Sina, Sohu, Tianya, Tom, Yahoo! China, and YCool. Among that group, Baidu’s services stand out as some of the most widely known and used. After all, not everyone in China posts on Mop, but a huge percentage of the market searches with Baidu, and not just on computers, on cell phones and other mobile devices as well. And when compared to Google or Microsoft, Baidu has a lot more to lose than either of those companies, neither of which was drawing substantial revenue from its Chinese search engine. It seems, then, that Google can afford to be cavalier in their approach to censorship. If they lose their license to operate in China, they’ve got a big wad of Western markets’ cash to dry their tears with. But if Baidu loses China, they’re dead. Of course they need to try harder to stay on the government’s good side.

Baidu’s executives, MacKinnon points out, have at times appeared enthusiastic about censoring; to support this she cites a recent “self-discipline award” accepted by Baidu’s CEO from the government, and his participation in singing some “red songs” with CCP up-and-comer Bo Xilai. She also mentions a leaked blog post from another Baidu exec that suggests they aren’t all that excited about censoring. The truth is hard to pin down, because Baidu obviously cannot state publicly that they oppose censorship without risking losing their license to operate in China. Nor can they really refuse to “sing red songs” or accept awards bestowed by the government without causing dangerous loss of face.

I do not mean to suggest that censorship is right, but I wonder, as does MacKinnon, what good could possibly come from “bucking the system” at this point. If Baidu refuses to censor their searches to the government’s satisfaction, they will certainly lose their license, and then what are Chinese people left with? The new People’s Daily-affiliated search engine?

Self-censorship is an evil of sorts, but in the current system, its a necessary one. If Chinese people are to have access to any kind of internet at all, there must be Chinese companies willing to engage with the government and play by its rules, at least in the short term. If everyone stopped self-censoring and lost their licenses, that would send a great message to the government — but at a tremendous cost to the Chinese people and their already limited freedom of speech.

What I hope, then, is not that Baidu stops censoring their results — at least, not yet — but I hope that they are using their clout, their increasingly commanding market share, and the power of consumer demand for unfiltered search results to influence government policy makers and lobby for a freer internet. I also hope that American policy makers and investors will pay attention to the details of MacKinnon’s nuanced testimony, and not jump to the conclusion that Baidu and other Chinese internet companies are happily complicit in government censorship. They may be complicit, but there’s little evidence they’re very happy. And more so than any disengaged company, they have a little leverage they can try to use to shove the government in the right direction. American investors should push their Chinese investments for that kind of engagement, not the satisfying-but-pointless self-destructive shutdown advocated by some to “send a message”.

That might help foreign companies look “socially responsible” but the Chinese government has shown it doesn’t really care that much about such messages, so the only real loser is, as always, the Chinese people.

For the record, I have no connection, financial or otherwise, with Baidu or any other Chinese internet company.

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0 thoughts on “Censorship and Search: Baidu and the Chinese Dilemma”

  1. One thing that occurs to me in this whole debate about internet censoring and freedom of speech, is who inside China is really pushing for uncensored internet searches? The whole reason the United States is no longer an English colony and does have all the rights it has today is because the PEOPLE were willing to stand up and fight for their rights. I have not seen any research on this (and I imagine it would be extremely difficult to get any meaningful research), but how many of the Chinese PEOPLE are actually pushing for uncensored internet? I know that there are certainly some, but how big (or small) is that group? How many people don’t care? When I was living in China, most people were so concerned with their cell phones, QQ, and online games that they didn’t care much about larger social issues. Even when they did care about social issues, their default stance was always that “it’s the government’s job”. Until the majority of Chinese people start to care about changing their society and pressuring the government to change (or changing it themselves in defiance of the government), I fear that change will be slow and difficult in China. International pressure can only do so much; the PEOPLE have to care enough to change their own lives.

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  2. And international pressure often causes a huge backlash among Chinese internet users. But I guess that depends on the issue. I don’t think the netizens would mind that much if there’s international pressure on the Chinese government over the soaring real estate prices or workers’ salaries, as is seen in the enormous outpouring of support online for the strikers.

    But with internet censorship, even though nobody likes it (seriously, no Chinese netizen likes it), those who want to visit blocked sites can always “scale the wall” with easy-to-use proxy software. So they lose basically nothing. And the Chinese authorities are shrewd enough to make the world inside this Great Fire Wall as big as possible so few have the motivation to go out.

    For example, I seldom scale the wall because the NYT, The Economist, The Guardian, Le Monde and CNN are all accessible. What more do I need to know about what’s going on in the world?As for domestic and Chinese-language news, if you know where to go (big, famous online forums) instead of just the Sina portal, nothing escapes you even though the more sensitive news might be censored by the official coverage.

    A week ago there was a poll that shows despite the oil spill and the wars, Americans overwhelmingly say they care more about unemployment and the economy. It’s the same here, despite censorship, the Chinese care much more about employment, education, medical care and, most of all with the urban population, property prices.

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  3. I think having these US government paid proxy services and vpn’s is counterproductive in combating Internet censorship in China. There is so much false information about the FLG, Tiananmen and among other stuff and I am sure that if someone decided to check out this stuff, they would dismissive that this information as propaganda and would be glad the government actually censored it.

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  4. @David

    I disagree with your understanding of the People of the United States fighting for its rights against the King of Great Britain. It reads beautifully in History books, what more is it than propaganda? Wasn’t it mostly economic interests who felt they shouldn’t be taxed, and rebelled for this reason? As I am Canadian, please forgive my possibly inexact understanding of US History.

    Economic interests in the US/13 colonies were antagonistic to those of the King (to tax vs. to not be taxed, at a time where economic development wasn’t a clearly developed concept yet) and were geographically remote from the bulk of the King’s army, plus helped by French and Spanish armies. PRC government and economic interests probably share a common goal: developing the Chinese economy. And the PRC government can easily intervene, without fighting foreign powers at the same time, when economic interests go astray. If we look at the billionaires who got jailed lately, we can see how quite powerless they can be against the government.

    Meanwhile, as urusai said, most people mind their own business. After all, between economic interests and government, how can anyone have a clear preference? In the 13 colonies, geographic distance probably was a key psychological element in getting the population to feel there was a distance to another land, which should not rule them. But many nevertheless refused to fight. Their descendents were expelled to Canada.

    I agree with Custer hoping Baidu will lobby the government with its growing influence. People need motivation to fight. Once Baidu grabs enough of the Chinese market, they will need to keep growing, and that may well mean pressuring the government. On the other hand, this same need for expansion made Yahoo! abide by the PRC’s standards of censorship, as did Google, before they changed their mind and got thrown away.

    Thinking about it, what would happen if the “clout” (following Custer here) Baidu and others have was ever used against the government, eventually to fight it? Wouldn’t that count as a Liberal revolution against a traditional authority? Marx predicted the next step would be socialism. I just find the thought amusing.

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  5. To clarify a bit, Baidu is currently running two separate advertising formats. The new format (in which it is more clear which results are ads and which results are natural search results) is supposed to be gradually replace the old format (in which only those that look for the “推广” will notice which are ads and which aren’t.)

    Also, Chinese SEOs (search engine optimizers) widely believe that even some of the natural search results are actually paid for through non-official channels. This may have nothing to do with Baidu as a company…

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  6. I find Rebecca to be quite a genius. I’ve observed on a few occastions that she’s capable of speaking different things before different people.

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  7. “If everyone stopped self-censoring and lost their licenses, that would send a great message to the government — but at a tremendous cost to the Chinese people and their already limited freedom of speech.”

    You really lost me with this hypothetical situation. Are you trying to suggest that a coordinated effort to send ‘a great message’ can only have negative results for the general populace? Either you are suggesting that no message, regardless of how pointedly stated, can ever affect government policy or that the party is willing to close down the Chinese internet rather than concede an inch.
    Do you honestly believe that legitimacy is never an issue when it comes to the mandate of the CPC to govern China and control its development? Perhaps I give too much credit to Chinese middle class with their greater expectations or is it that you assign too much willingness to the central government to impose its will with impunity against a full scale effort to stand up to it. So which is it?

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  8. The “great” there is meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, and “everyone” is an exaggeration. The government has already shown they’re not going to change their internet policy because of businesses pulling out. If everyone really pulled out, I’m sure they would respond in some way, but that’s never going to happen as it requires every domestic internet company to, in essence, commit suicide.

    Furthermore, say everyone did pull out, and the government did eventually cave, what period of time would that happen over? Certainly it wouldn’t be overnight, so how long would Chinese people have to go without basic internet services? How many people who work in the IT industry would be jobless? What effect would losing the internet, basically, have on other industries? I’m not an ecomonic expert or anything, but I suspect that even going without basic internet stuff for a month or so would be pretty devastating, and the whole process from now to the gov’t caving could take years. I think engagement is going to be a quicker process, and also has some chance of succeeding.

    And yeah, to a certain extent, I’m not sure how much legitimacy really matters to them when the chips are down. They, after all, have the guns, and history has shown us they are certainly willing to use them if their legitimacy is in question. If hundreds of thousands of young protesters and the eyes of the whole world didn’t keep them from a violent military invasion of their own capitol, I highly doubt that some internet companies and the middle class whining about how when they search the internet some things are filtered out is really going to turn many heads in Zhangnanhai.

    A recent counterexample is Green Dam, but that was also poorly made software. I kind of doubt the govt would have backed down so easily on the censorship, but they didn’t want to stand behind the rest of the product b/c people knew it was so obviously flawed in a number of ways.

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  9. C. Custer,

    Gees, you are talking a hypothetical situation that would probably never happen. How many Chinese are looking to read foreign propaganda?

    The green dam software was a fiasco because the Chinese government try to force computer makers to put them in the computers. However, it still available to download for free if you choose to.

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  10. I’m offering free OpenVPN and PPTP VPN access through my US-based server for residents of countries with internet filters. These VPN technologies offer a way to access Hulu, Facebook, and other blocked services.

    Others charge high prices for these services, but I can offer the service for free, now, to users that help me beta test my site.

    For more information, check out http://hostizzle.com today

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  11. Thanks for your insightful article.

    I also feel sad that Baidu is having such a serious degree of censorship and paid advertisements. Sometimes I couldn’t find the desired search results because of the excessive amount of paid keywords that distorted the organic search results.

    But I do see hope that Baidu might exert its leverage to shove the Chinese government a bit in the future, though I’m not sure when. Hopefully, as there are more Chinese netizens joining the internet realm, Chinese people will become more technology-savvy and more aware of their rights of freedom on internet, or freedom of speech in life in general.

    Thanks for your article again. I really love it.

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