Recently, the New York Times ran an article about the increasingly tight controls over everything from the internet to the media in China. It starts with this anecdote:
If anyone wonders whether the Chinese government has tightened its grip on electronic communications since protests began engulfing the Arab world, Shakespeare may prove instructive.
A Beijing entrepreneur, discussing restaurant choices with his fiancée over their cellphones last week, quoted Queen Gertrude’s response to Hamlet: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The second time he said the word “protest,” her phone cut off.
He spoke English, but another caller, repeating the same phrase on Monday in Chinese over a different phone, was also cut off in midsentence.
Everyone likes a good censorship test, so it’s easy to understand why people started piling on. Shanghaiist and Shanghai Scrap ran tests to see if they could duplicate the effect, and both found they couldn’t. ChinaHush also noted this, and on other blogs and Twitter the response has been kind of harsh, calling the story “false” and attacking the credibility of its authors.
These “experiments” are all predicated, though, on the assumption that the NY Times article is talking about automated censorship. You say “protest”, and presto, the phone magically hangs up on you. And yes, if the New York Times had reported China was doing that, it would be a load of crap. But that’s not what the story says.
Let’s take a look at the sentence that immediately follows that opening anecdote:
A host of evidence over the past several weeks shows that Chinese authorities are more determined than ever to police cellphone calls, electronic messages, e-mail and access to the Internet in order to smother any hint of antigovernment sentiment.
It seems clear to me that the anecdote was meant to be understood in the context of “authorities [being] determined […] to police cellphone calls,” which is probably exactly what was happening. The anecdote isn’t meant to be evidence of voice-recognizing censorship software, it’s evidence of increased police surveillance of the phone calls of anyone they consider suspicious.
Now, there’s no way to know whether the Times’s contacts would fit this description, because both of the sources mentioned are anonymous. Still, other journalists on Twitter confirmed that the authorities are definitely listening in on some phones. So why is everyone assuming the reporters are just making this whole thing up?
The fact is, we’re all testing for an automated system, but that makes no sense. I can’t even imagine the kind of resources bringing such a system to bear on all mobile phone lines would require, and even if they could, how could it possibly work? Given the diversity of accents and dialects throughout China, not to mention the diversity of “sensitive” words, my guess is such a system would be more or less impossible to make effective. Text filtration is one thing — and we already know for a fact that China Mobile filters texts for sensitive keywords from time to time ((I learned that myself the Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.)) — but voice filtration is another one entirely. Why bother? The PSB already has lists of their “people of interest”, it’s probably a lot cheaper to monitor their phones manually than it would be to monitor the phones of the entire nation via some crazy software.
Now, is this the clearest New York Times story ever? No. The fact that so many people assumed they meant automatic filtration software is testament to that. Moreover, there’s no real way to be sure it’s true because the sources are anonymous. Probably, there was a better way to start that article.
But with that said, is it fair to call the article “false” or accuse them of poor fact checking because yelling “PROTEST!” into your phone didn’t get you disconnected? No. We’ve all had fun playing with our phones. But let’s call off the witch hunt until we have some actual evidence that they’re making things up.