Chinese bloggers run the gauntlet of forced registration, censorship

Good news and bad news come intertwined in China, especially in its online world protected by the Great Firewall and the Golden Shield — technological attempts to control what’s said and viewed on the Internet.

The recent bad news that the Chinese government is requiring all bloggers to register with the government by June 30 or face shutdown was tempered by the fact that there’s always another free blog host somewhere in the world that’s less controlled. And when word leaked out that the new Microsoft joint venture in China running MSN Spaces was censoring words such as “freedom” and “democracy” from blog titles, it didn’t take long before Peacefire and the Committee to Protect Bloggers had a simple work-around to use those words.

The forces to fight censorship and government control around the globe are finding an increasingly more vocal and effective counter-effort to circumvent filtering and blocking.

In modern China, Internet access is exploding each year, with an estimated 130 million people coming online by the end of 2005 and about half having broadband. The bad news is that their view of the Internet is edited by tens of thousands of government censors who watch and block sites every day on subjects as varied as Taiwan, the Dalai Lama and human rights.

A recent report on China’s filtering efforts by the OpenNet Initiative called the government’s scheme the most sophisticated one in the world. “While there can be legitimate debates about whether democratization and liberalization are taking place in China’s economy and government, there is no doubt that neither is taking place in China’s Internet environment today,” the report concludes darkly.

But another bit of good news is that the popularity of online forums has been augmented with the rise of Weblogs, now numbering anywhere from 700,000 to the low millions. And alternate sources of news delivery such as SMS mobile messaging have helped spread government-suppressed news about the initial SARS outbreak and aided anti-Japanese protests last April.

As China becomes a technological powerhouse, Western high-tech companies are drooling at the prospects. The problem? How can these companies avoid becoming part of the censorship and filtering regime? Amnesty International had a scathing report last January which singled out Microsoft, Nortel, Cisco and Sun Microsystems for helping the Chinese government monitor Net users — and increasingly incarcerate them. Reporters Without Borders estimates that there are more cyber-dissidents in jail in China — 62 — than in any other country.

The technology companies largely defend their actions as saying they are only providing the tools and that people and governments use them how they wish. While this defense has served the tech companies well in a long history of working with China, the global rise of blogs has provided a counter-mechanism for worldwide protests that are outside any government’s control. The recent censorship by MSN Spaces, for instance, caused a brush fire in the blogosphere, and Microsoft blog evangelist Robert Scoble only fanned the flames with a post defending his employer.

“When doing business in various countries and, even, various states here in the U.S., we must comply with the local laws if we want to do business there,” Scoble wrote on his blog. “And, as a shareholder in Microsoft, I think it would be a bad decision to decide not to do business in China.”

Scoble argued that the Chinese people should make their own laws, and the people he met in China had an “anti-free speech stance.” But Rebecca MacKinnon, who runs the Global Voices blog project for Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, called Scoble’s view “the biggest pile of horseshit about China I’ve come across in quite some time.” The pile-on ensued and Scoble was told he was wrong by everyone from Dan Gillmor to his son and even co-workers — until he finally apologized and admitted he was wrong.

But don’t look for any of the companies doing business in China to make any apologies or pull back. Instead, they’ve put up a wall of silence of their own with the media. First the Microsoft joint venture said it was just following local laws and regulations in China, though there are no laws banning the use of the words “democracy” and “freedom.” Then MSN global sales and marketing director Adam Sohn told the AP that, “Even with the filters, we’re helping millions of people communicate, share stories, share photographs and build relationships. For us, that is the key point here.”

I tried to get a comment from Sohn or anyone at Microsoft to no avail. I also contacted Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and Yahoo PR but never got a response. A Google spokesperson passed me to another less responsive spokesperson on the subject.

My hope was to have a virtual roundtable with Chinese experts, bloggers, human rights officials and company representatives from Google, Yahoo and MSN. While these companies refused to comment in the roundtable, I did CC them all with every message in the e-mail discussion, so at least the conversation is in their in-box (and hopefully not in their spam folder). I also made multiple attempts to reach Chinese government officials, with no response. If any of these people decide to join the conversation, they are welcome to add their comments to the forum that runs below this column.

The following is an edited version of the roundtable that did take place over the past five days.

Andrea Leung is a Chinese-Canadian blogger raised in Hong Kong and currently living in Canada. She does project management and helps Chinese blogger Isaac Mao with projects at his Social Brain Foundation, a non-profit looking to bring collaboration and resource-sharing culture into China. Social Brain is organizing the first China Blogger Conference planned for Shanghai this autumn.

Julien Pain is the Internet desk officer at Reporters Without Borders, a French non-profit that works on behalf of journalists and bloggers around the world pursuing freedom of speech. Pain helped run the recent Freedom Blog Awards, which recognized 60 blogs around the world for helping defend freedom of expression.

Xiao Qiang is the director of the University of California-Berkeley’s China Internet Project. A physicist by training, Xiao became a full-time human rights activist after the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. Xiao was the executive director of Human Rights in China (1991-2002) and is currently vice-chair of the Steering Committee of the World Movement for Democracy.

Anne Stevenson-Yang is the managing director of the United States Information Technology Office (USITO) in Beijing. Before that, she was the founder and president of Clarity Data Systems, a software company making management and data-analysis systems for Chinese direct marketers. Prior to forming Clarity, she was vice president of business development for Metromedia China Corporation. She also spent four years as China director of the U.S.-China Business Council, a business association of U.S. corporations that invest in China.

Online Journalism Review: China has set out a deadline for blogs and Web sites to register with the government. How do you feel about this policy? What do you think the consequences will be for those who do or don’t register?

Anne Stevenson-Yang: I’ve been surprised that the tightening did not come sooner, a testament to the lack of blog-savviness of the Chinese leadership. Of course registration is even more politically concerning than remote surveillance tools like key-word search, and it automatically classifies all unregistered blogs as illegal and actionable, while of course authorities will not take registration applications for blogs unaffiliated with someone who holds an IIS [Internet Information Services] or ICP [Internet Content Providers] license. The affiliated sites are hardly blogs anyway — they are conventional publishing operations but written in a colloquial style. Probably the next step will be to require any approved bloggers to register as journalists.

Andrea Leung: First of all, in case it is still not clear yet, the bloggers who are most affected by the policy are those who have their blogs hosted on independent virtual servers. Those who publish a blog with a Chinese blog service provider similar to Blogger’s Blogspot or Typepad are not required to register at this time.

In China, the majority of the Chinese bloggers use a pseudonym in their blogs. The new registration requirement would, in theory, leave bloggers with no options to publish anonymously. Blogs would have to display a registration number and include a URL link back to the Ministry of Information’s Web site. This would allow the authorities to easily trace the real identity as well as location of a Web site owner.

For this reason, many bloggers were angry when they first heard about the law, let alone the requirements that the registration is not a one-time process but an annual exercise; and failure to comply may result in a hefty financial penalty.

So far, many are not clear on the exact requirements of the law. This ranges from who is required to register, where to register and what is required for registration, etc. The question of who (what type of Web site) is required to register is especially confusing given the law is vague. It has spurred a lot of discussions on the Internet with both information and misinformation, making it more confusing for anyone.

Some people have obviously registered — as they blogged about their experiences of registering on their blogs. But many haven’t. There is no complete set of statistics on either case. Some people haven’t decided whether they would register at all. Some are planning to leave it to the very last minute. Some adopt a wait-and-see approach as they ponder whether the law would be well enforced.

There are also a few cases indicated that their registrations were rejected. It is too early to tell the consequences for those who fail to register.

For sure, in some provinces, those who haven’t registered have already been “locked out” from their Web sites. All they could see is a system message saying that they must register or else their site will be shut down.

There are also doubts in the blogger community about the feasibility of the law, given a.) the sheer volume registrations that the government needs to process; and b.) the government’s poor track record in enforcing its policies. After all, the legal requirements that a Web site owner needs government approval prior to publishing a Web site is not new. It has never been well enforced in the past.

Regardless of whether the registration will really be able to patrol bloggers after the June 30 registration deadline, the chilling effect has been felt. Chinese bloggers, in general, are convinced that the government can find out who they are and will watch what they write after they register their Web sites.

OJR: In Iran, the bloggers are more trusted than the state-run news sources. For a long time, Iranian bloggers were under the government’s radar but now are finding life difficult with arrests. How much does the broader Chinese society know about Chinese blogs, and what role do the bloggers play? Do they do journalism-type reporting, commentary or a mix? Due to the chilling effect of the registration rules, do you believe they might turn to an anonymous blogging service run from a Western country, if it was relatively safe from detection?

Xiao Qiang: When we talk about the role of spreading information and expressing public opinions, it is important to not just mention blogs and bloggers, but also to include BBS (online discussion forums). While blogging has been rapidly growing in China in last two years, its public influence has not matched BBS.

Since 1997, the most popular Internet portals allow users to discuss current events by posting comments on bulletin boards or real-time chat rooms linked to specific news stories. Such discussions have become popular both in the private portals and on official Web sites such as the People’s Daily‘s popular Strong Nation Forum, which has more than 200,000 registered members. At any normal hour, more than 10,000 users are online to participate in these discussions. The number of registered users for the top 10 bulletin boards, which focus on news and political affairs, range from 100,000 to 500,000, while the number of online users at any normal hour can reach 15,000. Today, there are hundreds of online forums on different subjects across Chinese cyberspace.

The blogosphere is now also increasingly important to spread information and give bloggers a personal platform to express themselves. Many bloggers are also active participants in the BBS and more and more BBS users migrate themselves to the blogosphere. Both online forums and the blogosphere are closely monitored by China’s Internet police, and their hosts meticulously control and censor comments to ensure that the discussion does not cross politically acceptable boundaries. However, because of the sheer number of blogs and the anonymity of online forums, together they still create a widespread, efficient, and direct communication space that does not exist anywhere else in Chinese society.

In online forums, there are lots of journalism-type reporting; here is one example covering the Shalan flash flood.

While in the online forums one can publish information without their real name, the blogosphere is much more distributed and interlinked for spreading information and is giving censors a big headache [when trying] to clean the space.

Stevenson-Yang: I agree that the BBS phenomenon is more socially important and, in a sense, subversive, than blogging because BBS forums have permitted just about anyone to enter public debate, while blogs are less ephemeral and so more of a risk to the individuals posting. The various supervisory groups — retiree committees associated with the Propaganda Bureau that review media for non-conforming content, departments of the local police looking out for online fraud and pornography, the different ministry personnel charged with watching online violations of their own areas (like illicit information from broadcasters overseen by SARFT, gaming content overseen by Culture, etc.) are more likely to notice established blogs than BBS, just because of the age and online habits of the people conducting the monitoring exercises.

And clearly, blogs have been and will increasingly be targeted for higher-level administration, while BBS will more or less be left to each site’s administrators, already held responsible for blocking offensive content and for caching the traffic for three months in case police want to chase down someone who’s been posting. I imagine that the real significance of the BBS will be to foster the emergence of a few, influential commentators, people like Fang Xingdong, just as the newspapers, as they’ve commercialized, have engendered star columnists who become difficult for the authorities to dislodge and who eventually influence public debate.

Leung: I concur with Xiao that the public influence of blogs is rather limited up until now considering that there are only about 700,000 blogs in China as of April 2005, according to’s estimate. This is less than one percent of the total Internet population in China, which is now estimated at around 100 million. Nonetheless, it was growing at a very fast rate over the past two years.

Only a very small percentage of Chinese blogs focus exclusively on politics and current affairs. (For more details on this, see this paper.) But their potential as an alternative information channel should not be underestimated. While most blogs are personal in nature and focus mostly on any topics other than politics, at times when a local injustice occurred, bloggers would halt writing on their regular topics and be the first ones to break news, often in the form of eyewitness or first-hand experience accounts, while mass media remained quiet. The Niu Niu scandal; news of restricted public access to Tsignhua University’s BBS; anti-Japanese street demonstrations are some examples, just to name a few.

Given the blogging network is highly distributed, interconnected and instantaneous by nature, blogs enjoy a narrow window of opportunity to rapidly relay controversial news across the country through desktops as well as Web-based blog aggregators — and through linking, re-posting or commenting on a blog post.

They also foment public discussions online across multiple blog clusters and offline in a blogger’s personal network of friends and family until the topic comes to the authorities’ attention — at which point, the authorities either yield to public pressure and address a public concern (as in the Niu Niu incident), or order the silencing of a topic. An example of the latter was on April 17, when the state ordered all Internet content providers, including Chinese blog service providers, to refrain from publishing anti-Japanese content and the Internet was instantly sanitized overnight on topics related to anti-Japanese. Some bloggers would delete politically unacceptable content to avoid troubles such as threats of having their blogs close down or other forms of retributions.

Of course, this picture may all be changed if bloggers felt that their content was heavily scrutinized and relaying sensitive information may have serious consequences.

During and after the recent anti-Japanese protests, some bloggers have set up an alternative blog on international sites such as Yahoo 360 and MSN Spaces. They perceived international sites as safer places where there are no content policing and they could blog anonymously. These are the only solutions that they are aware of and are accessible to them from a usability standpoint (i.e. doesn’t require any advanced technical skills to set up and operate).

They would use international sites whenever they want to express opinions that may deem politically sensitive. But they would also continue blogging on their existing sites that are in China for a variety of reasons (e.g. they’re happy with their existing blog software and didn’t want to switch to another platform; emotional attachment to blog’s URL address; fear that their sites would be blocked or would take a long time to connect to if hosted outside of China).

OJR: How should an Internet company such as MSN, Yahoo or Google do business with China in an ethical way? Knowing that the government wants certain words censored and might well ask for identities of people who use their services for reasons of prosecution, how does a U.S. or other Western company enter into these arrangements without becoming a collaborator on chilling free speech? How can the companies NOT do business with China and rationalize that to shareholders?

Stevenson-Yang: I can’t comment on Microsoft, but we should remember that all commercial sites operating in China deploy such tools, whether or not automated (some just have people watching the traffic), and posting error messages saying that you can’t use certain words is more transparent than the practices of most sites.

Julien Pain: That’s not an easy question to answer. But it is an issue that any information technology company should tackle before doing business in China. I believe that private companies should take into account the consequences of their activities in terms of freedom of expression. If they don’t want their activity to be regulated by the American government, which is fair enough, they have to respect some basic ethical standard.

I understand that the competition between these companies is very harsh, and that they fear they could lose markets. But they should always respect the universal values defined by the U.N. declaration on human rights, including its Article 19 on free speech. I’m not saying that they should fight for freedom of expression. But they should at least refuse to collaborate on the Chinese censorship system. And that’s what they are doing in China.

When you censor yourself, your search engine or blog tool, you collaborate on the Chinese censorship. I mean it: You don’t only comply with its laws, you collaborate. And there’s no excuse for that. I know that the question was more precise. But I can’t give these companies complete answers about what their policy should be. The only thing I would preach here is: dialogue. I believe that it is through dialogue that these companies will find acceptable solutions.

First, dialogue among competitors. Instead of competing without rules, maybe they could find agreements on the principles none of them should ever break. Is that so difficult for Microsoft, Google and Yahoo to meet once and decide that none of them should collaborate with the Chinese censors? They’ll probably answer that this would give the market to Chinese firms. I don’t think so, because the Chinese IT companies are not yet as efficient as the American ones. In other words, they still need you.

And make no mistake. They may let you enter their market. But in the long run, they’ll do their best to favor their own companies and make you bankrupt if they can. Second, engage in a dialogue with us, the human rights organizations. We don’t demonize private companies. We’re willing to discuss and help them find acceptable compromises. But so far, none of these companies have ever accepted to talk to us.

Finally, I think if you stick to universal values, your customers will trust you. Otherwise, you will tarnish your image, in the Western world as well as in China. And in the end people will use other blog tools, other search engines. Is it really worth it? Is China that powerful that you have to comply with all of its demands? That’s your choice. But we’ll keep on alerting public opinion if you don’t respect the values we stand for.