How Chinese video sites self-censor everything from stand-up comedians to karaoke singers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 August, 2015, 11:18am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 August, 2015, 11:18am

In China, even aspiring singers and would-be comedians bow to constant and automatic online surveillance.

The country’s largest "social video" websites -- where viewers debate and reward their favourite karaoke ditties and comic routines -- operate under severe yet hazy censorship policies that grant them broad leeway in deciding what content to block, according to a study co-led by Citizen Lab.

Researchers at the University of Toronto unit and the University of New Mexico reverse-engineered applications YY Inc, Tian Ge Interactive Holdings’ 9158.com and Sina Show, and Guagua.cn, which together serve over 100 million people.

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They discovered that the Youtube-like services monitor thousands of words and phrases and scrub private messages. Vague policies governing the internet -- coupled with the threat of penalties like license revocation -- mean social media services are forced to take matters into their own hands, they said.

The findings illustrate the autonomy with which services self-censor to comply with broad government guidelines.

Tian Ge slid as much as 0.9 per cent to HK$3.52 as of 10:05 a.m. in Hong Kong. YY’s U.S. stock closed 1.1 per cent lower on Friday and is down by a quarter from a June 12 peak of US$80.66.

"This research suggests that even though there’s a lot of pressure to implement censorship, there isn’t much detail on how they should do it," said Masashi Nishihata, one of the researchers.

"So it leaves these companies up to themselves on how to do it, out of some vague fear of fines from the government or reprisal."

Word lists

Researchers pored over a data set of 42 word lists and 17,547 keywords or phrases. The lists shared little common ground, dispelling the notion of a "monolithic" set of regulations.

Unlike Youtube’s library of professional and home-made videos, the quartet of websites are venues for amateur singers, comedians and even virtual teachers. Viewers discuss their merits on forums and reward performers by buying and sending virtual roses. YY said it had 117 million active users at the end of March.

They block posts or messages at the client or software level, rather than at a national-level internet firewall. Researchers were thus able to extract complete databases of censored words and work out the precise time new phrases were added, Nishihata said.

Steamed bun

The keywords that the websites look out for range from the expected, such as Tiananmen and 1989, the year of the crackdown on the square, to the more obscure. For instance, the services zeroed in on "Steamed Bun Xi," an allusion to a widely circulated photo of Chinese leader Xi Jinping partaking of the savoury snack, an event that was criticised as political theatre.

YY pounced on "thetankmen," a reference to the iconic image of a lone man halting a line of armoured vehicles during the Tiananmen Square massacre. Sina Show’s list included "Jasmine," a reference to the pro-democracy movement of 2011 that could also stymie many innocent messages.

None of the four websites responded to requests for comment. The Cybersecurity Administration of China didn’t immediately respond to a faxed request for comment.

"The popularity of social video platforms, the diversity of real-time media content, and the virtual goods business model puts these platforms under particular pressure to monitor and manage user activity," the researchers said.

A harsh regime

China keeps a close eye on its 668 million internet users, the world’s largest Web population. The government pays particular heed to social media, blocking Facebook and Google’s mail and search services, as well as Youtube. In the latest move to tighten its grip, the government announced plans to set up "network security offices" staffed by police at major internet companies, according to Xinhua.

Despite limited overlap, the themes all four focused on included social issues, criticism of the government and collective action, the study showed. Other common topics included the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong, words related to a Uyghur separatist movement, and senior officials such as Xi.

Like Youtube, the four video platforms employ terms of service that spell out what’s permissible.

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For instance, YY and Sina Show will block posts containing certain banned words, sometimes along with a pop-up warning, sometimes not. The intended recipients are usually told that an incoming message was censored, the study found.

Researchers also discovered that, on YY and 9158 for instance, some sensitive phrases are replaced with asterisks.

Censors look beyond just social video sites. Services that stream paid content such as Sohu.com and Baidu’s IQiyi, previously left to police themselves, are now said to be required to submit full seasons or episodes for approval.

Last year, four US shows, including The Big Bang Theory and The Good Wife, were removed from Chinese video sites.

"These results show there is no monolithic set of rules that govern how information controls are implemented in China," the researchers said in their study.