Search Engine Complicity in Chinese Censorship

by Aaron Bradley on June 4, 2009

in Search Engines

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the brutal suppression of public protest in support of democracy in China's Tiananmen Square. The protests, which had begun on 14 April 1989, ended on 4 June when tanks from the People's Liberation Army cleared demonstrators from the square. While the exact number of deaths that resulted from this action will never be known, it seems plausible that several hundred protesters, along with a handful of police and military personnel, were killed. The carnage inflicted by the police and PLA have resulted in the event being commonly labeled as the "Tiananmen Square Massacre."

These basic facts are readily available to me through a Google search, which returns the Wikipedia article, citations for civilians killed from PBS, and the New York Times, as well as a large number of views of the now iconic image of a lone figure in a white shirt standing in front of a column of tanks (the 3 June 2009 New York Times Lens Blog carried an excellent retrospective on the "Tank Man of Tiananmen").

I do not, of course, live in China. Were I a Chinese resident that same Google search would have rendered an entirely different set of results, and even the most basic information on the Internet regarding the events of 4 June 1989 would be inaccessible to me. It seems appropriate on this anniversary to take a look back on how Google, Yahoo and Microsoft each reached the state of affairs we can observe today (and which are detailed below specifically in regard to "tiananmen square" queries): active collusion with the Chinese government in the censorship of search results.

A Short History of Search Engine Censorship in China

For Google, the road to Peking was evolutionary. Access to Google from 2002 on was periodically blocked and then restored by Chinese authorities, who from the early days of the 21st century brought both technological and regulatory measures to bear in an increasingly successful effort to limit the access of Chinese Internet users to material the authorities considered "subversive".

In 2002 Google, which at that time had not yet produced a regional Chinese search engine, was still equivocal about its policy regarding collusion in Chinese censorship efforts. A 2004 interview with Sergey Brin and Larry Page in Playboy reflected that ambiguity, but also provided a preview of what was to become the standard defence of self-censorship by all the search engines.

PLAYBOY: What would you do if you had to choose between compromising search results and being unavailable to millions of Chinese?
BRIN: There are difficult questions, difficult challenges. Sometimes the "Don't be evil" policy leads to many discussions about what exactly is evil. One thing we know is that people can make better decisions with better information. Google is a useful tool in people’s lives. There are extreme cases, we're told, when Google has saved people’s lives.

By January 2006, the answer to those "difficult questions" seemed to be resolved with the release of a censorship-compliant google.cn. Andrew McLaughlin, senior policy counsel for Google, had this to say regarding Chinese censorship laws:

"Google.cn will comply with local Chinese laws and regulations," he said in a statement. "In deciding how best to approach the Chinese–or any–market, we must balance our commitments to satisfy the interest of users, expand access to information, and respond to local conditions."

Speaking before the US Congress, Elliot Schrage, Google's vice president of public affairs, echoed this sentiment when he asserted that google.cn "will make a meaningful — though imperfect — contribution to the overall expansion of access to information in China."

Microsoft was also sharply questioned by members of Congress during this same session for its voluntary suppression, starting in 2005, of MSN Spaces blogs containing Chinese-banned keywords. Speaking before Congress, Microsoft's Jack Krumholtz "said the company was 'deeply troubled' by the requirement that it censor blogs but said that, as a result of the blogs, 'There's more opportunity for freedom of expression in China today.'"

By August of 2006 it was clear that Microsoft's regional chinese search engine, search.msn.com.cn, was also censoring search results. Indeed, in January of 2006, Microsoft's Bill Gates voiced public support for Google's approach to google.cn. Quoted by the Times of London, Gates opined that:

… he thought the internet "is contributing to Chinese political engagement" as "access to the outside world is preventing more censorship". … "I do think information flow is happening in China … saying that even by existing there contributions to a national dialogue have taken place. There’s no doubt in my mind that’s been a huge plus."

Yahoo has a long-standing presence in China, having launched Yahoo China in September 1999. In 2005 Yahoo formed a strategic partnership with China's Alibaba Group and in November "re-launched" Yahoo China as a search brand under the domain yahoo.com.cn. It appears as though state-compliant censorship of search results was a feature of yahoo.com.cn from its inception. By June of 2006 the organization Reporters Without Borders had labelled Yahoo the "clear worst offender in censorship tests on search engines."

Related to this is the case, in September 2005, of a Chinese writer – Shi Tao – imprisoned for sending the text of an internal Communist Party message via email. Reporters Without Borders claimed that Shi Tao's arrest and conviction was based in part on information provided by Yahoo to the Chinese authorities. Yahoo spokesperson, Mary Osako, said in response that "Just like any other global company, Yahoo must ensure that its local country sites must operate within the laws, regulations and customs of the country in which they are based." Under questioning before the US Congress in February 2006 Yahoo responded with what, by that point, had become the party line in regard to information repression in China on the part of the search engines.

"The Internet is a positive force in China," said Michael Callahan, senior vice president at Yahoo, which came under harsh criticism. He said the company is "very distressed" about the fact that Yahoo had inadvertently helped China imprison at least one dissident.

At this same time, Google's Elliot Schrage provided perhaps the most succinct summary of the search engine's policy on the subject.

Under pointed questioning about Google's role in abetting censorship, Schrage said: "I am not ashamed of it, and I am not proud of it."

(For a broader summary of this topic to 2006, I highly recommend "Race to the Bottom: Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship," by Human Rights Watch.)

"Difficult Questions" and Easy Solutions

At the end of the day the response of the search engines to the "difficult questions" regarding the censorship of search engine results in China has been straightforward compliance with Chinese demands. Faced with the choice between access or not to a potential market of 1.3 billion people, the search engines have clearly opted for marketplace access.

From a corporate perspective this is neither surprising nor in any way unusual. Multi-billion dollar companies routinely ignore human rights implications of their actions in favour of the bottom line, and whether or not they feel shame or pride in so doing is a moot point.

If the search engines are to be faulted more than any other organization for helping to support a repressive regime, it is by dint of their disingenuous (indeed, somewhat Orwellian) argument that by censoring information they are contributing to political freedom by the broad-based dissemination of information in general. From all appearances years of Internet censorship has only served to more staunchly quell any further movement towards democracy within China, rather than open the flood gates of free political expression. It has certainly emboldened the Chinese government in its paranoid efforts to suppress the slightest shred of political dissent on the Internet, as evidenced by its massive blocking of websites leading up to the Tiananmen Square anniversary. And, perhaps most disturbingly, there are signs that China has been largely successful in the seemingly Herculean task of expunging the massacre from the collective Chinese memory, and that there now exists a whole generation of young Chinese with little, or no, knowledge of the event. There is even a sense in which the suppression of specific classes of Internet-delivered information has resulted in a sort of fatalistic resignation among ordinary Chinese that this is the way it is, and this is the best we can hope for. What is there out there in the wider world, certainly via a search query box, that indicates the existence of anyone sympathetic to the Chinese plight? "Do no evil" indeed.

There is a correlation between the attitude of the search engines towards Chinese censorship, and the attitude of business in general towards human rights abuses in China. By bringing China into the world fold as a modern industrial state, the argument goes, the walls of oppression will eventually fall under the irresistible weight of a population who desires the same liberties as their Western peers. Some twenty years after Tiananmen this in no way appears to be the case, any more than broader access to information via Google et al. has resulted in a magical blossoming of free speech.

There was a time, perhaps, when search engine marketing types could take solace in (and even believe) Google's creedo that "You can make money without doing evil." Perhaps you can, but that is not the route that the Google or the other search engines have taken. At the core they are indistinguishable from any other companies doing business in China: profit trumps morality.

As a search engine optimization professional my paycheque is derived from the existence of Google, Yahoo and Bing, and as such I'm at least in some way complicit in their business practices. The day has simply not come when most individuals living in politically permissive societies, myself included, are willing to forgo self-interest in favour of the distant oppressed. But I am not deceived (nor should anyone be who derives the benefits of cheap goods or clean air at the expense of the Chinese people's political freedom or environment – the vast majority of Westerners). That some fifteen year-old Chinese boy or girl does not know of the Tiananmen massacre is in some part down to me. And yes, I am somewhat ashamed of this fact – and unequivocally not proud.

Tiananmen Square Search Engine Queries in China

Google

Search on Google China for Tiananmen SquareSearch for "tiananmen square" on Google China (via a Chinese proxy), 3 June 2009.

Obviously these are heavily scrubbed results, with no indication that Tiananmen was ever the locus of a political protest. Note, however, the third picture in the image vertical (proof that filtering technologies, like the search engines themselves, can sometimes be fooled). The image is pulled from a MySpace Canada page. The reason it appears in these results is that it is entirely devoid of any political context. The author, tongue-in-cheek, says only "here are some pics of me … at tiananamen square."

Yahoo

Search on Yahoo China for Tiananmen SquareSearch for "tiananmen square" on Yahoo China (via a Chinese proxy), 3 June 2009.

See note below.

Search on Yahoo China for Tiananmen Square- Google TranslationGoogle translation of the Yahoo search above, demonstrating that the query itself is filtered and discarded. "Remove some unnecessary words" … yeah, like "Tiananmen."

Search on Yahoo China for VolleyballSearch for "volleyball" on Yahoo China (via a Chinese proxy), 3 June 2009.

Just, for the record, an indication of what a Yahoo China search results page should look like.

Bing (Microsoft)

Search on Bing China for Tiananmen SquareSearch for "tiananmen square" on Bing China, from Canada, 3 June 2009.

Unlike the Google and Yahoo results I was not able to use a Chinese proxy to verify these results, because China had just banned Bing. Consequently, one cannot be sure if the results referencing the massacre would appear in the normal case of things if Bing had been not been banned altogether from China. One suspects they would not, as politically-compliant search filtering of Chinese-facing results have previously been a feature of MSN and Live Search. As Hotmail has also been blocked in this latest spate, it seems likely that China was clamping down on the MSN network (or whatever Microsoft is calling their network these days) as an Internet communication mechanism in general.

MySpace China (Fox Interactive Media)

Search on MySpace China for Tiananmen SquareSearch for "tiananmen square" on MySpace China (via a Chinese proxy), 3 June 2009.

While MySpace is not a search engine, it is powered by Google, and after encountering a MySpace Canada image that had made its way into the Google China search vertical, I wanted to see how Chinese-based MySpace pages were treated. As you can see, the query for "tiananmen square" returned no pages. Unlike the Yahoo example above I have not published a screenshot of the translation, but the essence is the same. "Sorry, could not find and consistent with your search results 'tiananmen square' information."

Pages from SEO Skeptic on Google China

Pages from seoskeptic.com in the Google China Index

Some pages in the Google China index for from seoskeptic.com (via a Chinese proxy), 3 June 2009.

After publication of this article, will SEO Skeptic make it on the Chinese ban list? I'll keep you posted.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 VancouverSEO June 4, 2009 at 10:21 am

This is your best post to date, IMHO. Will gladly join your cause to get your site banned or blocked by the great firewall of China.

Reply

2 SEO china June 8, 2009 at 6:02 pm

Hi,
very interesting and complete post for such a hard question.
We can only hope that by the process of natural selection and improvement, search engine users will choose and use the more honest and best search engine. So that this kind of censorship will disappear.
Regards

Reply

3 Keir January 17, 2010 at 1:39 am

My students here in Peking are desperate at the news that they may be without real information, or tools such as Google earth, video or books. In May they will write their final IB exams and fear their ability in university to make something of themselves in such an educationally sterile country such as China. They see their international classmates and ask why their country goes to so much trouble and expense to ensure they are kept at ignorant about their history, of the latest SARS or bird ‘flu pandemic, or even the most trivial issue. It’s no wonder the country is proficient at stealing intellectual property but, with 1/5 of humanity, are responsible for so little ingenuity.

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