The Baidu leak – reflections on freedom of speech and information in China
The latest hot item circulating in the Chinese blogosphere is a compressed folder leaked from a Baidu employee. It contains a set of working documents from Baidu’s internal monitoring and censorship department, with details including staff names, their performance records, company contact lists, censorship guidelines, operating instructions, and specific lists of topics and words to be censored and blocked, guidelines of how to search information which needs to be banned, the backend URL, and other internal company information from November 2008 through March 2009.
Baidu, China’s leading search engine company, has a long history of being the most proactive and restrictive online censor in the search arena. These newly available materials reveal and confirm how censors at the search engines distort and manipulate the search experiences of Chinese netizens. These complete documents are being rapidly spread, and quickly deleted, in Chinese cyberspace.
What I found interesting isn’t the obvious fact that Baidu has censorship and even monitoring procedures, but that an employee saw fit to leak them. It seems to me that regardless of what laws/rules are drawn up by the Chinese authorities, which are then passed down for companies to implement, a number of Chinese people will continue to leak, whistle-blow and hunt around for information they deem to be interesting to them and/or in the public interest. Quite apart from whether a final victory could ever be won, is it a war that the government should even be fighting?
Whilst the authorities are scared of how their position in China could be undermined by a freer flow of information, they need to consider what the reality on the ground is. Yu Keping commented that democracy “causes” people to do things like take to the streets in protest. That isn’t true, democratic rights merely allow people to protest freely. Their desire to protest is caused by an unresolved (at least from their point-of-view) grievance. The same applies to accessing and spreading information. The Chinese government needs to understand that rights do not make people do things. They merely allow them, and in some respects can channel their energy.
This is important because when Chinese people generate that energy because of something, it is in everyone’s interest that they do so in a calm, peaceful manner. For example, an effective right to protest in China would not stop any riots taking place, but it would help direct frustrations into expressions of solidarity that at least could end with few or no disturbances. In regards to the spread of information in China, is it so surprising that the “human flesh search engines” thrive in an officially restrictive atmosphere as can be found in China? Participants see themselves as the only people able to mete out “justice” as they see the authorities as being corrupt, disinterested or incompetant.
However, these people are little more than internet vigilantes, and vigilantes frequently target the wrong people or act with disproportionate barbarity. In April of last year, a Chinese student (Grace Wang) was dragged into the Tibet controversy. After the search engines got to work, not only were her contact details identified but she received death threats – even her parents had to go into hiding. In other cases, people have simply been wrongly identified (but of course the damage has been done by then).
How can this be avoided? I believe that enabling the flow of information, rather than restricting it, will have a positive result as people will enjoy the benefits of the new-found freedom and want to preserve it. As they won’t (in theory) be persecuted for expressing themselves, they will increasingly see the authorities as people they can trust and will deal with their problems – thus their default reaction will not be that they have to take matters into their own hands. It could also help spread information that the central Chinese government needs, such as local corruption, violation of laws in regards to business regulation, pollution, etc as people will know that even if local Police are bought off they can’t be easily arrested for publicising important information.
What are your thoughts?
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