Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sina testing subtle censorship ahead of Tiananmen anniversary

What happened?

On May 31, 2013 at 7am, I observed that searching for keywords that are normally blocked, for example, “六四事件” (June 4th incident), surprisingly returned some results and no censorship notice. This temporary lift of censorship ended at 9am but started and stopped a few more times into early afternoon, as if literally somebody was flipping a switch on and off at Sina headquarters.
Update on June 2: Sina is still constantly switching between those two method.
Update on June 8: From June 3-4th and onwards, Sina Weibo seems to switch back to explicit complete block for those keywords.

Change in Tact

To understand what is happening you need to be familiar with Sina’s various censorship methods. I observed and reported last year that Sina had implemented new tactics to censor particular keyword searches. Just days before the June 4th anniversary, Sina is again tweaking its censorship mechanisms. During the morning hours of May 31, Sina completely abandoned its old style, explicit approach to censorship, which displayed a message but no search results:
“According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results for [the blocked keyword] can not be displayed.”
No, Sina has not suddenly decided to fully support freedom of speech. On the contrary, it would appear that Sina is using more advanced and subtler methods to censor search results. All keywords mentioned below are normally explicitly and completely blocked. But each behaved a little bit differently on the morning of May 31.

Strictly filtering

The results I received when I searched for “六四事件” (June 4th incident) showed that the first page of results displayed not all results but carefully selected results. While the first results page seems to indicate that there are more than 50 pages of results, no results are shown when you click through to the next page or any page beyond the first. This censorship tactic was also employed last year for “香港” (Hong Kong) (Solidot story in Chinese).
Keyword example: “六四事件”(June 4th incident)

Delayed censorship

I have also previously reported that Sina has delayed search results for sensitive keywords.
When testing the delayed censorship tactic, I conducted two simultaneous searches of similar keywords, one sensitive and one non-sensitive. In the case of searching for results for “六四” (June 4), I used “五七” (May 7) as a control group, to be sure that search results were indeed intentionally delayed. As suspected, results for “五七” (May 7) displayed posts that were ten minutes old while the most recent June 4 posts were several hours old.
This indicates a marked improvement on Sina’s time delay censorship mechanism. Previously the default time delay was seven days. It is likely that many Sina Weibo users would find this time delay to be odd but could attribute this to a bug or a glitch in the system. With today’s hours-long time delay, most users will likely think that discussion around this topic is ongoing.
This is an example of censorship at its worst - users suspect their search term might get blocked before they search but instead of a censorship notice they are led to believe that what they are searching for is not sensitive plus not many people are saying anything interesting about the keyword anyway.
A good example of this can be found when searching for “天安门事件” (Tiananmen incident). The current search results do in fact bring up quite a bit of information about an incident which occurred in Tiananmen Square - in 1976.
Keyword example “六四” (June 4th), “天安门事件” (Tiananmen incident), 24周年 (24th anniversary) 法轮功 (Falungong)

Implicit complete censorship

Sina now returns a fake “Sorry, no results can be found” message instead of the normal censorship message that we have come to at once love and hate: “According to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results for [the blocked keyword] can not be displayed.”
Keyword example: “64事件” (64 incident)

Implicit semi-censorship

Sina returned a partial censorship notice from page 2 onwards. The first page looks completely normal, leading users to believe that there are no decent search results for that keyword - why continue searching?
Keyword example: “天安门大屠杀”

V user only censorship

All search results come from V users only. V users on Sina are like verified account on Twitter. Those users are more likely to follow the rules as they might face revoke of V status or block of account.
Keyword example: “游行” (demonstration)