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    RConversation: Studying Chinese blog censorship

    Rebecca McKinnon (Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre) writes an interesting piece about China’s censorship of blogs and the assistance it receives from blog hosting companies. 

    My conversation with [a Chinese blogger] inspired a systematic study of how blog-hosting companies serving mainland China censor their users’ content. All Chinese blog-hosting companies are required by government regulators to censor their users’ content in order to keep their business licenses. But as Liu discovered, they all make different choices not only about how to implement censorship requirements, but also how to treat the users who get censored.

    Most Chinese bloggers who want an audience inside mainland China use domestic Chinese blog-hosting services – only a very tiny minority use overseas services like Blogger or WordPress.com because they tend to be blocked, and even fewer have the tech skills to do their own custom WordPress installation on their own rented server space. The aim of my research was to look at the Chinese blog-hosting services (which includes foreign brands offering services inside China to the Chinese market) and establish how much variation there is in terms of what gets censored and how it gets censored. Since it’s not in the interest of people who work at blog-hosting companies to tell the truth about these things in great detail to a foreign researcher, I decided that the best way to do this would be to post a range of content across a number of blog-hosting services and track who censored what and how.

    With the help of John Kennedy, Ben Cheng, and some student research assistants, my team posted more than 100 pieces of content – passages from news items, blogs, and chatrooms of varying political sensitivity – consistently across 15 different Chinese blog-hosting platforms. We found that censorship levels and methods vary tremendously from company to company. I have written about some of the interesting findings that came up as we went along herehere, and here. […]

    In my presentation I offer several conclusions to be drawn from what was a very experimental and relatively small-scale project:

    • Internet filtering (“the great firewall”) is only one part of Chinese Internet censorship.
    • Domestic web censorship is not centralized at all. 
    • Domestic web censorship is outsourced by government to the private sector.
    • Domestic web censorship is inconsistent – if you can’t post successfully in one place, itʼs usually possible to post your content somewhere else, at least for at least a while.
    • The system of “managing” user-generated web content in China appears to follow a similar logic and approach as the system for controlling professional news media.

    The entire post is worth a read. She also is writing an academic paper about her research, which should be published in a year or two.

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