There is much applause in the blogosphere for today's Washington Post Op-Ed condemning Yahoo! for its collaboration with Chinese authorities in the conviction of Chinese journalist Shi Tao.
(See my previous blog posts on the issue here and here.)
Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang said the company was merely following Chinese law - it had no choice. But as human rights groups have been pointing out, Yahoo! has been going above and beyond the strict legal requirements for some time. In 2002 it signed the Internet Society of China's Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the Chinese Internet Industry.
This "self-discipline" is reflected in the way Yahoo! filters (censors) its search results. The ONI China Filtering Report describes the process in detail. To illustrate the process, I've taken screenshots to show what happens when you try to search for terms like "Tiananmen massacre" on the Chinese language versions of Yahoo! and Yahoo! News.
Here are the steps I took:
1) Sitting at home in Cambridge, MA, using my Comcast internet connection, I accessed Chinese Yahoo! News and Chinese Yahoo!, then typed in the Chinese words for "Tiananmen Massacre": 天安门屠杀. (Click image to enlarge)
Here's the result:
A big fat error message. Same thing happened when I did the same search on the Chinse Yahoo! News.
2) Then I configured my browser to use a Chinese proxy server, so that my searches would be going through an internet service provider based in China. (Chinese ISP's configure their routers to block politically sensitive web pages and filter politically sensitive search results.)
Same error message, plus the Chinese ISP barred all further requests from my computer's IP address. Punishment for trying to access blocked material.
3) By way of comparison, I repeated the same steps for Chinese Google and Google News searches, both with and without a Chinese proxy.
Here's the result of a Google News Chinese search through my normal Comcast connection:
A search on the term "Tiananmen Massacre" returns a long list of results.
In contrast, when I do the same search on a Chinese ISP, I get this:
What do these screenshots illustrate? They show that Yahoo! actively filters politically sensitive terms from within its own service. Even if a Chinese user finds a way to access Yahoo from outside China or via a foreign proxy server, they will still get filtered search results on politically sensitive terms. By contrast, Google does not actively filter. The filtering of Google search results is done only by the Chinese ISP... although Google helps hide this process from Chinese users by choosing not to show results that the Chinese user would be unable to access.
As a result, Chinese users of Yahoo! have no way of discovering that the search results they seek actually do exist -- even if they are tech-savvy enough to use a proxy server. This is the same experience that Chinese users have when using home-grown Chinese search engines like Baidu. Google users have a better chance of finding forbidden material if they know how to use proxies, but those who don't (i.e., most Chinese internet users) also have no way of knowing what they're missing.
Like their Chinese competitors, these American companies are not being transparent or honest with Chinese users about the fact that search results on their services are being censored in compliance with Chinese legal and extra-legal requirements. A bit of transparency and honesty, at very least, would be a step in the right direction.