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May 07

The Baidu leak – reflections on freedom of speech and information in China

Written by Raj on Thursday, May 7th, 2009 at 10:25 pm
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I will admit that I came across this several days ago but have been too busy to write on this until now.

Baidu’s Internal Monitoring and Censorship Document Leaked

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?


There are currently 1 comments highlighted: 36245.

28 Responses to “The Baidu leak – reflections on freedom of speech and information in China”

  1. miaka9383 Says:

    Raj, I don’t know if you know this..
    But part of a basic computer security class, is to learn how to crack the firewall of China and the censorship policies. I think these types of security policies have been leaked long ago…

  2. JXie Says:

    First, the whole “human flesh search” has nothing to do with censorship. It accomplishes a task that the current computing power, and the information collectible via Internet aren’t very good at: put a name to a face in a picture.

    The ICP theme roughly goes this way in China: there are some strict regulations governing ICPs in China. It’s up to the ICPs to control their properties. Some of the smaller outfits tend to be racier, so to speak, and they are running the risk of running afoul with the regulators and having their ICP licenses revoked.

    To me the flow of the information in China should be much freer, for sure. However it’s not “free” vs “not free”, but rather “how free”. If in any society there are always the bulk of people in the middle, and on the fringe at both ends you have some people want it be the “freer” and some other want it to be “less free”. For instance, in most Western societies you have the type who want all contents including the copyrighted ones to be free (from Napster to the latest Piracy Bay), and then at the other end of the spectrum you have folks who want to lock down porn contents, online gambling, etc.

    At the “how free” scale, I tend to believe China would probably work better at the “freer” side compared to today, and “less free” compared to say some European countries.

  3. Wukailong Says:

    @JXie: I agree with your descriptions and also what the debates are in Western societies. There have recently been some worrying developments in the EU where new laws are being considered that would considerably strengthen the powers of companies to lock down internet contents they consider harmful. However, I live in China; I don’t follow the developments in Europe close enough to know how bad the situation is.

    In China, there are certainly a lot of things that could be done to improve the situation:
    – Include a message that describes that a site is indeed blocked, and a short description why. (This is the way Saudi Arabia does it)
    – Allow some sort of petitioning to remove blocks (for example, the Wikipedia or blogspot block could have been removed earlier this way).
    – If blocking is considered necessary, try finer granularity. Blocking youtube because somebody publishes a video about Tibet is too coarse when the vast majority doesn’t even know the video exists in the first place. Same thing goes for Wikipedia, blogspot, BBC etc. (It should be noted that these are now all open, but they could potentially be closed at any minute)

  4. Wukailong Says:

    @miaka9383: I agree it’s not difficult to find ways around the great firewall. But it’s hard to really get a good experience, and some of these ways are being shut down too. It used to be possible to use VPN from any café, but now that’s just stopped working (so I can’t do work from cafés anymore unless it’s pure coding). Finding new proxies is just frustrating.

    I guess Tor or Psiphon are the best ways around the problem, for now.

  5. Raj Says:

    @miaka

    I wasn’t commenting on the leak itself, more issues that arise from it – e.g. why people leak and what the response from the authorities should be.

    @Wukailong

    I believe the BBC’s Chinese service is still blocked – has that changed recently?

  6. Wukailong Says:

    @Raj: That’s correct. Months before the Olympic Games, English BBC used to be blocked too. I don’t remember exactly when that happened, but it was after Wikipedia was unblocked.

  7. pug_ster Says:

    When it comes to ‘freedom of speech and information’ in China it reminds me of a quote that is on the New York Times newspaper everyday “All the news that’s fit to print.”

  8. Wahaha Says:

    CCP should stop blocking the information WITHIN the country, but they sure should censor the information from outside, cuz most of them are by people who cant wait to see China in chaos.

  9. pug_ster Says:

    Wahaha,

    I doubt censoring information from outside would work. On the other hand, Western countries use much more effective way to send their message like using information dominance instead of censorship. I’m willing to bet that more than 95% of Americans don’t know much of anything outside their own country.

  10. Wahaha Says:

    pug_ster,

    Imagine if there was no censorship in China, BBC, CNN and other west media big names wouldve sent armys of journalists into China to dig anything bad in China, then magnify them by 100 times and sent them back into China though internet, in the name of F@#$ing freedom of information.

    What kind of freedom ? well, look at their reports about Tibet.

    Remember a report on what China has done in Africa by a british journalist ? China was described as evil with no heart, but the poll showed that 90+% of people in Africa thought China had positive impact. This is the f@#$ing freedom of information those western media has talked about.

    So, IN MY OPINION, it does work, although some of opinions that worth reading are also censored. On public relation, China’s media and government officials are idiots.

  11. Raj Says:

    I’m willing to bet that more than 95% of Americans don’t know much of anything outside their own country.

    That’s a rather stereotypical comment, pug_ster. I don’t see it much different from the “Chinese are brainwashed” statements one used to hear/read (and sometimes do). I’m sure that plenty of Americans, even if not a majority, know “much” about something in the outside world.

    As to how informed Americans are, that’s a different question. I doubt that a majority/large minority of people in any country are very informed on anything.

  12. Raj Says:

    Imagine if there was no censorship in China, BBC, CNN…[would generally be evil]

    1. Internet censorship has never stopped Chinese people reading outside information. It just requires them to dig around.

    2. China now allows people to access the English version of BBC News Online. That enables people to translate and re-post stories they find interesting. If your scenario was plausible, the authorities would have kept all versions of the news site banned.

    3. CNN doesn’t have a Chinese site, so according to you they should already be running around in hordes and exaggerating negative stories. I haven’t heard about that happening.

    4. Even before the bans on reading BBC News Online et al were relaxed, foreign journalists had access to most of China. If they would dig up bad stories for re-circulation in China, they would do so for the rest of the world too.

    5. You’re paranoid (or grossly exaggerating).

    Remember a report on what China has done in Africa by a british journalist ?

    Oh my God, a report! An unfair report on China! Call in the Marines!!!!!!

    Why is it that some Chinese nationalists will so frequently tell others to put up with name-calling and abuse online, yet when anything negative is said about China that they deem unfair they run around like headless chickens?

  13. Wahaha Says:

    Oh my God, a report! An unfair report on China! Call in the Marines!!!!!!

    Why is it that some Chinese nationalists will so frequently tell others to put up with name-calling and abuse online, yet when anything negative is said about China that they deem unfair they run around like headless chickens?

    ____________________________________________________

    Give me a F@#$ing break, Raj,

    One of the reasons that China could accomplish something in last 30 years is cuz the BS by people like you were censored.

    Let me repeat : enjoy your f[—] [censored] freedom and pseudo-democracy which wont accomplish anything. 99.9% of Chinese focus on only one thing : economic development; and China wont let 0.1% population change the cause, at least for next 10 years or next 30 years, and China certainly wont let the cause be changed by some idiots from a country which has a history of stirring pots in other countries.

    So cry me a river, and you better mind your own f@#4ing business and see how your pseudo-democracy and freedom of speech (by lazy @$$holes and activitist scmbags) bankrupt your country in next 30 years. If it is so painful for you that nothing can distract China, I am sorry that there is nothing I can do for you.

    Nationlism ? ha, some old Americans still laugh at how those British gentlemen react when USA took over as the superpower.

  14. raventhorn4000 Says:

    Raj,

    In China, there a great historical tradition of the news network of “rumor mills”.

    But there is a difference between news and rumor.

    CNN’s and other Western Media’s reporting have often been accused of being unfair, even in US and India. Heck, Germany banned Hollywood from filming a movie just because Tom Cruise is a Scientologist.

    Why are you insisting on calling people “nationalists”, when they are just agreeing with a Government that the Western News are biased on China?

    If any country wants to ban a news network or even a religion for being harmful, (like Germany), it’s their own business.

    If you think that’s “nationalist”, you are the one being paranoid.

  15. pug_ster Says:

    10 Wahaha

    I said that censoring information outside won’t work because China does not control Foreign media therefore cannot influence it. These foreign journalists can always troll around the countryside and interview some disgruntled Chinese at their government. Even if there are no journalists within China, they can always recycle some video reel plus some Chinese dissident and give his take on how evil China is.

    Much of the problems due to censorship is the gap of missing information and Western Media will be more than happy to fill out the blanks with misinformation very much like what happened during the Tianamen square and 5/12 earthquake.

    As you mentioned about the British Journalist who described China evil with no heart. That lies how effective of the use of information dominance. Say a lie 100 times until it becomes the truth. It has been effective when Americans are duped that there were WMD’s in Iraq before we attacked there.

    @11 Raj,

    Yes that is a stereotypical comment. How many Americans learned foreign history, culture, the people besides what is typically spoonfed to Americans from ‘World History’ and TV shows? Even when foreigners come to China, how many of them actually want to mingle with the local Chinese? The US as the culture capital of the world cares little about other ‘inferior’ cultures, while the US culture is slowly eroding themselves.

  16. pug_ster Says:

    Here’s an interesting article from Danwei and someone that it ‘anti-China’ like from the site owner of pekingduck.org can actually put up their views in the website globaltimes China. Interesting.

    http://www.danwei.org/newspapers/richard_burger_on_being_an_eng.php

  17. Wukailong Says:

    @pug_ster: “Even when foreigners come to China, how many of them actually want to mingle with the local Chinese?”

    That’s very true… for many people, and one thing I thought was strange when I came here. Foreigners would live inside their compounds. On the other hand, from what I’ve understood many nationalities, including Chinese, do the same thing. It’s something that has to be actively fought by people who really want to mingle with locals.

    From my experience, the people most negative to China are the ones who come to the country and just stay with other foreigners, and together amplify their annoyances into a sort of hatred.

    On the other hand, back in the good old days (the 90s) the government also wanted to separate foreigners and Chinese. You would need perseverance to really get to know the locals, but these days it shouldn’t be any problem.

  18. Wukailong Says:

    @Wahaha: Hope you don’t get too upset about this, but I honestly worry about your anger at times, and what it will do with your health. If you’re just letting off steam it’s alright, but you seem to be quite unhappy.

  19. Wahaha Says:

    WKL,

    Thanks for your concern.

    Sean Connery (in movie ‘ untouchables ‘) said ” they pull a knife, you pull a gun.” When I am certain that someone holds a knife, I will not be so kind like Allen. Frankly speaking, I cant think of a reason why to explain anything to people like Raj. So, I pull a gun. Then instead of being pissed off, I have some fun.

  20. Raj Says:

    Raventhorn

    Why are you insisting on calling people “nationalists”, when they are just agreeing with a Government that the Western News are biased on China?

    I’m not. I do so because they either declare themselves to be nationalists or after watching them it’s clear that they are. Maybe you haven’t been here long enough but Wahaha is one. Besides, you say it like it’s a dirty word.

    pugster

    Even when foreigners come to China, how many of them actually want to mingle with the local Chinese?

    A fair number. Richard from the Peking Duck is a good example of one. As Wukailong says, it happens with other nationalities too. When Chinese people come to the UK I would say most of them stick with other Chinese – it was like that at university, certainly.

    Here’s an interesting article from Danwei and someone that it ‘anti-China’ like from the site owner of pekingduck.org can actually put up their views in the website globaltimes China.

    Probably goes to show that Richard isn’t anti-China as people like to call him. Also possibly that Global Times wants to increase its credibility by bringing on someone who is willing to criticise the CCP.

  21. Wukailong Says:

    @Wahaha: “Then instead of being pissed off, I have some fun.”

    Glad to hear that. 🙂 I even remember the movie, must have watched it as a kid.

  22. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To Wahaha,
    listen, if you think the expletives somehow accentuate your point, then have some balls, be a man, and just write them. What’s the point with all this @#$ shit? Sometimes, I wonder why it is that new English speakers learn the f-word, and can’t stop using it every 5 seconds.

    If you are so certain that all Chinese care about is the economy, to the exclusion of everything else, then why do you get so bent out of shape at what we say? If you think that democratic concepts have no chance of public support in China, why are you so afraid of people having the conversation? Or are you of the mindset that you are special, and uniquely capable of foreseeing the disaster that would be democracy in China, when all other Chinese are simply not sufficiently perceptive?

    I am clearly not as compassionate as WKL. If you do blow a gasket in the course of one of your tirades, it would be Darwinism at work.

  23. pug_ster Says:

    @Raj,

    I’m sure that Richard is an exception. I have respect for the guy who learns the local Chinese customs and language (maybe not so much on the language part.) But how many Americans in the US and abroad understand Chinese language, history and culture? Not many. In contrary to most Americans’ unwillingness to learn Chinese culture and language, many Chinese are willing to adopt Western culture and learn English.

  24. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To pugster:
    “But how many Americans in the US and abroad understand Chinese language, history and culture?” – I think the test should be how many Americans in China learn Chinese language, etc. Surely, an American in Spain (just as a random example) can’t be faulted for not learning Chinese, but they could be faulted for not learning Spanish. So when in Rome, do as the Romans do…wherever “Rome” might be for each individual.

    “In contrary to most Americans’ unwillingness to learn Chinese culture and language, many Chinese are willing to adopt Western culture and learn English.” – I think that’s just pragmatism. English is the de facto international language. So if one wants to venture onto that stage, one has to speak the lingo. It’s the same reason people use to say why Tibetans should learn Chinese – it’s necessary for them to get ahead in China. May not necessarily be fair, but that’s the way it goes. Someday, if Chinese becomes a more-widely used language internationally, it may behoove Americans to learn it as well, out of necessity.

  25. Raj Says:

    But how many Americans in the US and abroad understand Chinese language, history and culture? Not many.

    In how many countries around the world would you say that “many” people understood Chinese language, history and culture? I don’t think the Americans are exceptions to the rule – they’re probably more the norm.

    In contrary to most Americans’ unwillingness to learn Chinese culture and language, many Chinese are willing to adopt Western culture and learn English.

    In regards to Chinese people learning English, there’s an obvious business/job advantage to that because it’s spoken in so many rich countries, even if not as a first-language. Although Chinese is spoken by many people, it doesn’t have that international spread (and Americans already speak English which is more common).

    Second, I would guess that a majority of Chinese only seriously study English at school, which is compulsory. Many Chinese will take it further, but they would still probably form a minority of the population. Americans also learn a language, but from memory the most common one is Spanish. That makes sense given Mexico is it’s only non-English speaking neighbour and Spanish is spoken in other countries too. Although Chinese may be more important for them in the future, it isn’t seen that way so not given priority for compulsory education.

    As for adopting American/European modern culture, that’s just a popularity/aspirational thing. American/European culture is just seen as the best in so many corners of the world. When China was the number 1 country in the world, was it interested in other countries, did it adopt their culture, etc?

    Although I think people everywhere could benefit from learning more about other countries, singling out Americans and complaining because they don’t focus their interests on China doesn’t make sense to me.

  26. Wukailong Says:

    Actually, from my experience, adopting to other cultures just because they’re popular usually goes skin-deep. People adopt to other cultures when they have to, or when they feel admiration for them. As for myself, I came to China in 1997 and was an avid admirer at the time (I still am in many ways, though the infatuation I felt then has worn off) and tended to avoid the “foreign collectives” gathering in the campus area.

    I think people who make an effort to learn a new culture are different in that they don’t automatically dismiss differences as annoyances. When someone finds out about a Chinese habit that’s different from a European one and ridicule it, it’s pretty obvious they’re not making an effort. Still, this isn’t unique for Westerners. Now that my colleagues are mostly Chinese, I’ve heard the same sort of ridicule and/or prejudice against Western society.

  27. Wukailong Says:

    @SKC: “I am clearly not as compassionate as WKL. If you do blow a gasket in the course of one of your tirades, it would be Darwinism at work.”

    LOL! Actually, most of my tolerance these days comes from my memories of arguing with “facts”, if you remember him… That must have been my most bizarre experience here, though the most memorable moment was his debate with Steve.

  28. Raj Says:

    Actually, from my experience, adopting to other cultures just because they’re popular usually goes skin-deep.

    Yep. There’s a lot more to American/European culture than wearing jeans and listening to pop/rock music.

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