Tag Archives: Google

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.

Translation: “A Record of the Ancient Dove’s Migration”

On March 27th, the Chongqing Evening News published a remarkable story. Defying the direct orders of official government bureaus forbidding Chinese media to hype the Google fiasco, the Chongqing Evening News ran a story about a mythical bird whose name sounds just like the Chinese word for Google and whose story sounds, well, familiar. You may have seen this story in brief on EastSouthWestNorth, but we wanted to translate it in full because we found it so remarkable that something this brazen was published in a mainstream newspaper. We imagine some heads at the Chongqing Evening News will roll because of this.

Translation

We have translated this somewhat loosely in the hopes of conveying more clearly the parallels with the real Google story, but readers of Chinese should read the Chinese for the full, pun-tastic effect. We also moved one sentence from the middle of the text to the beginning because it read oddly in English otherwise.

The “Ancient Dove” [sounds like “Google”] is clearly very close to extinction within China, it is a bird hard to find when one “searches” […] It is held that this bird is the forbear of all modern birds, so it is called “Ancient Dove”.

This species originated in North America according to biologists, who believe the bird to have come from the area of present-day Santa Clara. By the turn of the century, the bird could be found everywhere. After March 23, 2010, the species began a large-scale costal migration in China, towards a southern port, and vanished from China.

Google - the "Ancient Pigeon"
Google: the Ancient Dove
Ecologists suspect the bird’s odd behavior is connected to the extreme climate changes happening in recent years, especially the ecological, environmental, climate and geological calamities in China. When met with adversity, the Ancient Dove cannot persevere as tenaciously as the Grass Mud Horse, so it raised the flag of retreat, attracting the disdain of some of the world’s animal lovers.

Special Characteristics

Its shoulders are draped with blue, yellow, red, and green feathers, and it is a bit bigger than the common dove. Its call sounds like the English word “googol”; Native Americans believe that this sound represents an “unbelievable number”. Mathematicians performed rigorous calculations and believe this number is probably ten to the hundredth power.

Environment

The Ancient Dove has an extremely strong capacity for adaptation, and can evolve quickly to become a new, indigenous subspecies. For example, at present there are large populations of American Ancient Doves, Japanese Ancient Doves, British Ancient Doves, and other subspecies. Because archaeology has proven the original Ancient Dove came from America, we often refer to the American Ancient Dove as “Ancient Dove”, and attach the name of the country they are located in to identify other subspecies.

The story in the Chongqing Evening News
Early research has shown that the Ancient Dove’s leaving may give rise [to the dominance] of another, long-clawed bird that looks just like the Ancient Dove but is actually a bird of prey: the “Paidu Bird” [sounds like “Baidu”, Google’s chief domestic competition]. The numbers of this ancient legendary domestic bird are presently expanding explosively. Now, Chinese people can only use this poisonous, ferocious bird, whose calls are in Chinese and who loves only money to fulfill the Ancient Dove’s function.

Habits

Living in groups, the subspecies in each country may excel at different things. The Ancient Dove eats anything with words on it, and can naturally estimate the relative worth of food. It performs advanced calculations to decide the proper sequence [in which to eat].

As you know, its mortal enemies are the “River Crabs” [sounds like “harmony”, a reference to government censorship], the “Wenzuo Crabs” [sounds like “the Chinese Writer’s Association“, which is also associated with censorship], and other types of Chinese crabs.

Current Population

In the world, there are an estimated 120 billion Ancient Doves, but they have already mostly disappeared from the Chinese mainland. What were once Chinese Ancient Doves have migrated to Hong Kong, so there is a downward trend in the worldwide population.

Many animal lovers went to the Beijing Ancient Dove santuary before March 23, 2010, to express their grief.

Our Thoughts

It is fascinating that the talking-about-it-without-talking-about-it approach to discussing politics in China has spilled over from the internet and into the real world. This is, of course, not the first time, but it is the latest example of a kind of “news” that could never have been written or understood anywhere but China, where it seems sometimes a true story can be told only mythologizing and anthropomorphizing it. Could it also be the beginning of a trend, or will the censors head it off at the pass by making an example of the folks at the Chongqing Evening News? What will happen to them remains to be seen. But their having the guts to publish a story like this in the face of harsh warnings not to address the Google issue sympathetically shows a spirit that I think the now-exiled Ancient Doves would be proud of.

Google Search Now Blocked in China

via Shanghaiist
In case you haven’t already heard, Google searches (on Google.com and Google.com.hk, according to reports on Twitter) now all return a reset connection, i.e., they have been blocked by China’s net nanny.

However, the good news is that many people (we saw it on Kaiser Kuo’s Twitter, among others) are reporting they can still use Google via the search bar in their browsers or through GMail. And others have speculated that at least Google.com.hk is blocked only because its search URLs include “&gs_rfai=”. RFA, or Radio Free Asia, is an American pro-democracy and anti-CCP radio station and searches for RFA are blocked, so it’s likely that if that is the reason for the block, Google could undo it by changing the URLs that their searches result in.

Still, all of this is secondhand knowledge. We’ll wait on Chinayouren for the official report as Julen is the master GFW tester, but we’d love to hear four things from you in the comments:

  1. Where you are.
  2. Whether search works for you on Google.com.hk
  3. Whether search works for you on Google.com.
  4. Whether Google search works for you via a browser search bar, GMail search bar, or some other means.

Whatever the ultimate result of this Google block, you can be sure the media firestorm is coming. To keep track of all the sides and how they’re spinning things, Imagethief has got a handy chart for you!

On a small housekeeping note, you will notice we have returned the ability to rate posts. Enjoy!

UPDATE: Good news! Google has confirmed that the “rfa” in its search results URLs was what was triggering the block, so Google searches in China should be restored soon.

“How the NSA Caught the Lanxiang Hackers”

One hopes that the US’s National Security Administration agents are smarter than they come off in the translated post below, but you never know! In any event, this joke has been being passed around the Chinese internet, and can be found here, among other places. Some netizens have interpreted as fact, which I discuss and dismiss in my analysis, below the translation. But, if nothing else, it sheds some light on the amount of derision the US’s hacking accusations against Lanxiang, a poorly-regarded vocational school, have been met with in China.

Translation

Actually, the American NSA agents made themselves up as Chinese netizens and asked around [about the hacking] on internet forums about military affairs: ‘who were the hackers behind Google?’ A Chinese netizen became aware of their identity, and cursed, responding, “Stupid c**t American spy, LXJX”, and after that all the replies below it were similar to that one.

[LXJX is an acronym for 楼下继续, or lou xia ji xu, i.e. “the next person (person posting next on an internet forum) continue”.]

The American department, having found a rare treasure, researched all day but couldn’t understand what LXJX meant. So they searched on Google, and the first result was Lanxiang Vocational School, so they went with that!

If you don’t believe, you can try it:

Google search for LXJX, Lanxing is the first result

Thoughts

Some netizens, including our own commenter Wrath, seem to be taking this post at face value, but it is rather obviously a joke. The lack of a link to the original thread makes it dubious enough — certainly, if it had actually happened, someone would be able to find it online. More damning, though, is the fact that “LXJX” isn’t actually a particularly common acronym on Chinese forums. It’s nowhere to be found on the rather exhaustive ChinaSMACK glossary of internet slang, and Baidu returns precious few results (5,140) for the term, most of which have to do with this joke specifically. For comparison’s sake, “LZ” (an internet slang term for 楼主, equivalent to OP in English internet slang) returns over 35 million results. But perhaps the strongest evidence against it being real is that many Chinese netizens clearly don’t get it: the first result for “LXJX” on Baidu is by a netizen who had read the joke asking what LXJX meant (and he wasn’t the only one). In fact, pretty much everything Baidu turns up for “LXJX” is a reference to the post translated above, not a usage of LXJX as actual online slang meaning “next poster, continue”.

It seems infinitely more likely that the joke was reverse-engineered. Netizens figured out what search term would lead to a #1 hit on Google.cn and designed the joke from there, settling on LXJX as it is Lanxiang’s URL address and also easily converted into a short acronym.

In short: interesting, yes. Amusing, yes. But true? Not even a little bit.

Google Leaving China? Chinese Responses

So Google might be leaving China. Ostensibly, the company will be engaging in talks with the government as to how they can proceed to exist in China, but is no longer to follow Beijing’s censorship rules. Various people have speculated about other reasons for Google’s willingness to abandon what will certainly be the largest internet market in the world, citing fear of further IP theft (Google reported that their system had been hacked by Chinese hackers, some code was stolen, and the email accounts of some Chinese social activists were accessed), or perhaps a concession to China’s #1 search engine, Baidu. But what are Chinese people saying about this? We’ve collected some excerpts from various blog posts, Twitter accounts, etc.

From Amoiist’s Twitter:

The overall economic losses Google will suffer from leaving China will be slight, but because of this they will gain international fame and [a perception that they are] moral, the benefits of this are both long-lasting and priceless. Moreover, the day when the CCP steps down or changes will be the day that Google returns, [this whole thing] is just Google earning a few less coins for a while.

From Ai Weiwei’s Twitter:

At the Political Bureau meeting tonight…”Tonight our main topic is…hey, Li [Li Kaifu, former CEO of Google China], why don’t you come explain to everyone what Google is?”

Google already has the intent of leaving, which shows the clear distinction between the power of capitalism vs. the power of politics. Obama, you should cherish the memory of the Grass Mud Horse.

Google, I await your return when there is freedom.

From Han Song’s blog:

I think Google is a very naive company […] some people are saying that Google wants to […] lead the way, and give a challenge to the now-strong China, firing a shot to signal a battle. But they have forgotten that’s just science fiction. After the economic crisis, so many foreigners have gone to great lengths to make inroads with China, and want to rely on China; how can Google be so naive?

[…] Google is leaving, flustered and frustrated. After all, this isn’t bad, and all the cadres and the people are laughing heartily — Fear you going? From the beginning, you were completely locked-up [censored], when did we ever fear? This will only make us more on guard against, and see more into the nature of, imperialism, and make an even more impregnable wall. We will see this fight, which you’ve lost, through to the end; after all, you’re the one who has to come crawling back to us. If you don’t believe, wait and see!

From Zhang Wen’s blog, which has a lengthy essay on Google and Li Kaifu:

[…] Google finally can no longer stomach the increasingly tightening reins, and must abandon their original position of compromise. I feel this is civilization fighting back against savagery, this is freedom fighting back against autocracy […]

I’m very sorry to see some domestic websites and people gloating at another’s misfortune [i.e., happy about Google’s leaving]. I really don’t know what’s in these peoples’ heads, aside from money and ignorance. As a man who understood once said, “If things go on like this, China’s netizens will gradually come down in the world, becoming second-class netizens. Without any way of using the internet’s most advanced search tools, internet commerce will slowly return to the ‘stone age of the internet’.”

And a comment on a BBS post of the story on Anti-CNN (interestingly, the Chinese version of the originally-English news story is missing the explanation of why Google is considering leaving China):

Ha, Google is getting dizzy, they’ve forgotten about market economics and thought themselves to be badass!

Additionally, it’s important to note two things about the Chinese response so far. One, and this was also noted by a commenter on Zhang Wen’s blog, this story has not gotten much play in the mainstream Chinese media, which has been largely silent. Second, and understandably, there has been more discussion in Chinese circles about what will happen to Google China’s employees, should Google decide to leave China, than there has been on English blogs and news stories.

That’s it for now, we will update this post if more interesting responses or comments pop up.

Links

I can’t possibly keep up with this story, but here are many relevant links.
Google, Baidu, and Wild Speculation (Danwei)
Google退出中国 谁最受伤 (无聊布棉)
Everything (almost) that’s happened with Google + China so far (Shanghaiist)
The Chief Design Officer of Baidu Reacts to Google’s Withdrawal from China (ESWN)
Google and the Power of the Internet in China (The Useless Tree)
Say Goodbye to Google in China? Chinese Reactions (ChinaSMACK)
Google and China (Multiple Posts, Chinayouren)
Dramatic News from Google on Chinese Cyber Attack (Peking Duck)
The Google News: China enters its Bush-Cheney era (James Fallows)
Google detonates the China corporate communications script (Imagethief)
Google China photos: Because I’m Without Words (CN Reviews)
Googlesmacked (China Hearsay, Americans should definitely read this one!)
Q&A: Google and China (Evan Osnos)
Google China Employees in Limbo (WSJ)
Couple’s Counseling, Perhaps? (Bendi Laowai)
Twitter Responses to Google Leaving China (CDT)
Google Puts its Foot Down (RConversation)
Google Awakes to the China Reality (Found in China)
Gmail Security Breach, Want Some Proof? (ChinaHush)

This story, as they say, has legs (at least outside China). Meanwhile, things are quietly getting pretty creepy in Xinjiang, and pretty much no one is paying attention.