China’s Internet censorship policy, known as the Great Firewall, has a huge impact on the country’s Internet space. Not only are a number of popular Western Web services blocked — including Twitter and Facebook — but those in the country have restricted access to content — both Chinese and foreign — that is considered ‘sensitive’ by authorities.
Those who are looking to know more can find it, word-by-word, at the Blocked On Weibo Tumblr; a promising, if small-scale, initiative that documents some of the thousands of terms that are blocked in the country.
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The blog also does its best to explain the reasoning behind the blocking of each word, although often explanations are speculative as it can be unclear, while there is no official line from the government.
Censoring social media
The rise in popularity of social media, and popular microblogs Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo (both of which have more than 250 million members), has brought new issues for authorities. Content from users of the two services, and others, are frequently found to have been deleted, or censored from search results as they infringe upon what is considered acceptable.
The findings of a recent report have seen a number of media outlet’s naively state that Sina Weibo is “likely being censored”…but there’s absolutely no doubting the fact. Sina, like other Web firms in China, itself has a ‘Rumor Control Team’, which is focused on managing ‘sensitive’ content which may offend higher powers in China.
Here are some obvious, and less obvious, examples from the blog, which has categorized 219 blocked words at time of writing.
裸照 (nude photograph / luǒzhào):
The Combining Cyrillic Millions symbol:
封锁 (blockade / fēngsuǒ) [something we know troubled the government in the wake of the Occupy protests too]
There are plenty more examples, as these three come from the first page alone.
The Tumblr is the creation of Pittsburgh-based grad student Jason Q. Ng, who began the project back at the end of November in 2011. Ng set out his aims in the first post, you’ll be relieved to see he is using software and doing it all himself:
I’m planning on searching through a lot of words to see if they are blocked on Weibo. Ideally, going forward, I’d also be able to check the status of previously banned words to see if they’re still blocked. As this is a rather large undertaking (think SETI :), if you’d like to help and are fairly handy around a computer* (or simply good at following directions), let me know and I’ll send you a chunk of words along with instructions on how to check them. It does require a modicum of effort, but hopefully, as I refine my script, it’ll be mostly hands-free.
Those interested in lending a hand, or indeed computer, can send him a message via the Tumblr blog.
We like that there’s a good level of depth and context to each entry and, as Chinese censors can be arbitrary, words that have since been found to have been unblocked are updated to reflect that.
Unfortunately, as Ng reflects, a lot of the entries were subsequently unblocked in January, however the fact that they were censored, then uncensored, is interesting in itself.
@ericfish85 Indeed, most of the words I posted were unblocked in late-January. Words I’ve posted more recently are still blocked.
— Jason Q. Ng (@jasonqng) March 11, 2012
Blocked On Weibo is interesting for those with any knowledge of China and its Internet space, right from beginners to old hands. It would certainly be valuable to see the efforts expand with more researchers — as there thousands upon thousands of blocked terms — while a more organised, wiki-like site (perhaps in addition to the Tumblr) would be valuable too.