S3E6: Online Content Management (Censorship) in China

Online content management – censorship – is the bedrock of the Chinese Cybersecurity Regime and those who want to do business in China will either have to comply with it or decide to not enter that market.

In this podcast Dr. Michael D Frick and I talk about Online Content Management –  censorship – the bedrock of the Chinese Cybersecurity Regime. 

We make the point that one shouldn’t judge too harshly, ultimately there is a continuum between total informational freedom where one can share any information, infringe on copyright and commit libel at will, and total monitoring and control by a central power over what information is made available to whom and when. Ultimately every country and organisation positions itself somewhere on this continuum.

We discuss that China’s approach is not driven by Western moral values, clear rules and transparent guidelines but more by underlying governmental objectives and an assessment of impact: what the public perception of an issue and the resulting ‘fallout’ might be, rather than whether the topic or item is offensive or ethically or legally questionable.

Michael explains that, by design, there is no detailed blacklist or clear guidance to what ‘needs’ censoring, but that it’s more about acting ‘like a government censor would’ and making educated guesses around this: mirroring what government agencies and other organisations do, anticipating action, and avoiding topics that might be controversial until guidance has been released. Ultimately censorship is decentralised, the onus put onto content owners, providers and creators.

The Chinese censorship system is a complex mix of self and externally imposed, manual and technological censorship based on vague guidelines and rules out of which – organically – actions emerge that lead to censorship as and when circumstances arise.

During a US congressional hearing, google, yahoo and Microsoft had to admit, that on order to navigate this complex landscape, they had to learn censorship and engaged in it; and ultimately pulled out of the Chinese market with their search offerings.

Michael makes the point that some topics are clearly non-mentionables, for instance  sexual  innuendo, criticising officials, and – obviously – avoiding the 3 Ts (Taiwan sovereignty , Tibet independence, Tiananmen Square massacre).

We touch on what happens when you ‘mess up’ and that this can be the internet police knocking on your door, legal or financial penalties or loss of license to operate. It can mean being ‘cancelled’ or literally deleted from the historic digital record, but can also more subtle like downgrading of social credits record and resulting penalties such as additional audits or inquests or other bureaucratic hoops to jump through, or loss of quality internet access, and can also be social fallout due to public outcry (real or by trolls who act as (self-)appointed protectors of virtue or government policies).

Michael also explains that the landscape of agencies and official bodies that are involved in online content management is vast, spanning the publicity (propaganda) department – who comments on current events and define how history has to be interpreted -, the copyright administration, but also educators – shaping how information is perceived and passed on – and consequently public opinion.

What is interesting is that to the best of our knowledge only 2% of Chinese internet users use censorship evasion tools (e.g. VPNs), and that many Chinese citizens agree with the government’s content management policies in principle – and in practice.

We briefly get a bit more technical and discuss the Great Firewall which is one mechanism via which content crossing the border (in and out) and also the content moving within China is controlled. While there is no official description or documentation, we can still make educated guesses that content control mechanisms employed range from DNS spoofing, DNS attacks and DNA blocking to packet inspect and manipulation.

Michael also provides some guidance for businesses on what to do when operating in China, and makes the point that it is not as bleak as it may sound: many western organisations operating in China will be affected by this to only a very limited degree (considering that the big social networks are all Chinese owned) and as there are cybersecurity compliance solutions available for purchase from Chinese tech companies, and that ultimately China is highly interested in trading with ‘the West’ and bringing ‘Western’ technology into the country.

In our 5 minuted 06_2 interlude we make a quick detour and talk about China’s difficult relationship with Github: on one hand, the intrinsic nature of open source code shared via Github – let alone the fact that Github allows all sorts of other information to be shared – can easily undermine the Online Content Management (read ‘censorship’) policies which are part of China’s Cybersecurity regime, while on the other hand, access to standard libraries and the ability to collaborate on software projects is a key enabler – arguably a necessity – for most software development.

We conclude by explaining that for the Chinese government all it comes down to is: first preserving and expanding power, second economic development. Also that for organisations who want to operate China there is no half way house, but only the decision between whether to not enter the market at all or fully comply: every organisation will have to make this decision in light of their mission and values.

Michael holds a doctorate in Business Economics and a master’s in Modern Sinology. He works as consultant advising businesses on Chinese regulatory aspects.

His book “Chinese Industry 4.0” is available as ebook and in print format at Apple or Amazon.

Michael can be contacted via Linkedin or via email.

Background info

The 3 T’s

Eye roll incident

Github

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