The Citizen Lab, a research centre based at U of T’s Munk School of Global Affairs, has published a report following a year-long investigation into censorship practices concerning Chinese live-streaming applications Sina Show, YY, and, 9158.
Citizen Lab’s research was done by reverse-engineering the applications in order to examine the scripts that facilitate censorship, such as keyword bans which were on the client-side and therefore completely accessible to researchers after the reverse-engineering process.
The popularity of live-streaming using these applications has risen exponentially, with people using them to perform and share glimpses into their everyday lives.
While the government puts pressure on these private companies to implement keyword restrictions limiting the availability of content pertaining to “politics, guns, drug, violence, or pornography”, the report indicates that it is left to the application developers’ discretion to choose exactly which words to track and ban. They are, however, potentially subject to punishment by the state if they do not comply.
While further national oversight could provide consistency across applications, Citizen Lab Research Manager Masashi Crete-Nishihata explained the government’s use of this model: “In the West this kind of system is called ‘intermediary liability,’ in China it’s called ‘Self-Discipline.’ It’s not practical for the government to directly control every aspect of censorship, they need the participation of the private sector,” he explained. “Pressuring companies to follow ‘self-discipline’ is how the government can be effective. Our research shows how this system works in practice.”
The keywords stretch beyond banning explicit content to limiting coverage and commentary on significant events such as China’s loss in the South China Sea arbitration against the Philippines, the twenty-seventh anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and September’s G20 summit in Hangzhou.
In the case of The Republic of the Philippines v. The People’s Republic of China, China rejected a Hague international tribunal’s July ruling that stated that China had no claim to ownership of the South China Sea and within two days, several applications added ‘South China Sea Arbitration’, ‘President Xi’s rejection’ or ‘Hague’ to their keyword lists, leading to false or little coverage of the ruling or the impact that China’s rejection of the ruling could have on the region.
On November 4, the Cyberspace Administration of China announced the formalization of comprehensive regulations that will be enforced on private companies by December 1 in response to the increased use of these streaming services, which are estimated to reach a profit of $5 billion by the end of 2017. These regulations include the sharing of log data with authorities and providing them with user information for accounts that stream content deemed threatening to the state.
While increasing restrictions on the use of streaming applications reveal constant tension around social media use in China that threatens the state’s social control, users are always trying to find ways around censorship efforts and the state is constantly shifting its censorship strategy.
“Chinese netizens have developed creative ways of using the Chinese language in an effort to evade censorship. Examples include homophones, homoglyphs and other coded references,” Crete-Nishihata told The Varsity. “We see numerous examples of this creative speech in the keyword lists showing that censors are clearly picking up on these practices, engaged in a cat and mouse game between users. The censors will never be able to comprehensively censor speech through keyword filtering, nor will users always be able to evade these controls.”
Representatives from Sina Show, YY, and 9158 could not be reached for comment.