As I was digging myself out of the vacation e-mail backlog, I found a pile of alarmed messages. They contained various versions of this story on the Chinese self-discipline pledge that a number of blog hosting services including MSN and Yahoo! signed last week.
Before doing anything I checked in with some Chinese bloggers. I found people doing the literary equivalent of thumbing their noses with tongues sticking out and making loud "pppllhhhh" noises. They seem to view the pledge as a bunch of bureaucrats making yet another meaningless pledge to justify their existence. Keso points to a long list of other self-discipline pledges made over the past few years which, he says "other than giving us joke material, they've pretty much not amounted anything." Meanwhile "xucx" thinks the pledge amounts to "loud thunder with light rain." Memedia is dismissive too, although it also points out that this kind of thing will just drive more Chinese bloggers to solutions like the Digital Nomads Project, which aims to help Chinese bloggers set up their own independent blogs so that they don't have to rely on these blog hosting companies.
Memedia also points to another, very encouraging development showing that Chinese bloggers are less and less inclined to take censorship lying down. Beijing-based blogger Liu Xiaoyuan is suing Sohu for censoring several of his blog posts. He says he fails to see what law or regulation the censored blog posts were violating. He says there was nothing in them that violated Sohu's terms of service. This is now the second blogger who is going to court over censorship. The more these companies institute terms of service, and the more their censorship can't be explained by those terms of service, I predict we will see evan more lawsuits.
All of the Western press coverage of the pledge that I have found online is based on this statement from Reporters Without Borders. Interesting none of the stories I found even quote any Chinese bloggers. Nor have I seen any stories quoting directly from translations of the original Chinese-language pledge document. Reporters Without Borders have done some important work in calling attention to global affronts to freedom of speech and abuses by governments around the world (including the U.S. government) against people who say things those governments don't like. However, the last time I blogged about a story that came from a RWB statement without separately checking the original Chinese documents, Roland Soong made me look really dumb. Not wanting that to happen again, I decided I had better read through the original Chinese document before commenting. The meat of the pledge is in items 5-14. Below are my notes roughly summarizing them - perhaps somebody may feel inspired to do a more accurate and careful translation.
5. blog service should obey chinese laws and regulations, protect the legal rights of blog users and the public
6. a good blog service needs:
(1) comprehensive management
(2) sufficient technical and content management staff
(3) sufficient data security measures, including user data privacy, blog content security etc
(4) obey all other existing laws
7. provide good creative environment for blog usersguide them to create excellent cultural works
8. blog service provider should have user agreement with user, and blog host has a right not to give service to those who refuse to agree to terms of service
9. terms of service should include:
(1) blogger agrees to abide by china's laws, regulations, etc, will use the web in a civilized manner, not disseminate pornography, rumors, or illegal information
(2) blogger agrees not to denigrate and insult other ethnicities and religions
(3) blogger agrees not to disseminate rumors and false information, or information that harms others or violates the legal rights of others
(4) blogger agrees not to disseminate information that violates the copyrigths of others
(5) blogger agrees to monitor and manage postings, and to delete postings that are illegal or bad
(6) blogger wont use blog to disseminate viruses or other things that would harm other people's computers
10. if blogger doesnt adhere to the terms, the service provider has a right to delete any illegal or bad information, or terminate the blogger's service
11. encourage blogger to use real name, and register real full name, contact address, phone number etc.
12. blog service will use proper security to manage the information of bloggers who use their real names, protect the user private data, and not give it to third parties or publicize it without the blogger's permission except under circumstances when law requires.
13. blog service should reserve the right to manage the bloggers postings, and the blogger should manage their postings and delete illegal or inappropriate information.
14. blog service should establish online customer service window, and set up a hotline, to accept public comments and complaints about the blog service and content, and resolve things in a timely manner
The RWB statement says:
“The Chinese government has yet again forced Internet sector companies to cooperate on sensitive issues - in this case, blogger registration and blog content,” the press freedom organisation said. “As they already did with website hosting services, the authorities have given themselves the means to identify those posting ‘subversive’ content by imposing a self-discipline pact.”
Reporters Without Borders added: “This decision will have grave consequences for the Chinese blogosphere and marks the end of anonymous blogging. A new wave of censorship and repression seems imminent, above all in the run-up to the Communist Party of China’s next congress.”
This pledge is not by any means a great thing for freedom of speech, and I would point out that quite a number of well-established and Silicon Valley-funded Chinese blog-hosting services and Web2.0 companies are not on the list of signatories. Good for them. Too bad Yahoo! China and MSN China with their big international brands did not have the cojones to stand with them. Having gone through the pledge, however, I am struck by several things: First, the blog hosting companies pledge they'll encourage bloggers to use their real names but are not going to "force" them to do so, nor are the blog hosting companies "forced" to require bloggers (or even ask them very strongly) to use their real names. Second, the censorship which the blog hosting companies are pledging to do here is nothing more, I'm afraid, than what all major blog-hosting companies have already been doing for quite some time now. The pledge merely makes existing practices much more public, and what's more it institutionalizes the process by which companies will warn new users that their content will be censored. In a twisted way, this could even be helpful if it enables companies to be more transparent and honest with users about how censorship is being done, and also being more clear to users in advance about what will get them into trouble (and which has already been getting people into trouble for some time - without forewarning of any kind, usually). The insistence on privacy protection except in legitimate law enforcement situations could potentially help prevent names being leaked to powerful officials business people who want to use their influence to get friends working in blog hosting companies to tell them who is exposing their corruption - so that's potentially not all bad. The public security bureau has always had access to everything it wants, including via Yahoo as we know all too well. The pledge also requires proper customer service - in part to receive complaints about bad content but in theory this could also be used as a way for bloggers to appeal censorship decisions. Whether or not the pledge gets used in these more positive ways really depends on the companies themselves and how they choose to proceed - and whether their users push them in that direction. But it does seem that one could use the pledge as an excuse to be more honest and transparent with users if one wanted to take things in that direction. That is of course a big "if". At any rate, it is not quite the disaster that it is painted to be. The part about suggesting people use their real names is mainly throwing a bone to all the officials who lost major face when their attempts to require real name registration by law suffered miserable defeat earlier this year. Blog hosting companies lobbied hard against making real name registration mandatory, don't forget.
Meanwhile, both MSN and Yahoo! have issued explanations for why they signed the pledge. MSN sent this to the Register:
On August 21, MSN China, a joint venture between Microsoft and Shanghai Alliance Investment, Ltd., did sign - along with the other major Internet Service Providers in China - a self-regulatory code of conduct regarding blog services, sponsored by the Internet Society of China. Such self-regulatory codes are an effective means of helping to protect our customers from cybercrimes and other threats to online security and privacy, and to promoting a safe, friendly environment in which to enjoy our services.
The principles expressed by the ISC document are broadly in line with what other countries and industry groups have adopted in such self-regulatory codes, including commitments to promote online safety and to prevent misuse of services. While the self-regulatory code does make some recommendations that Microsoft does not support, it should be emphasized that these are indeed recommendations only, and we retain discretion to determine how to best achieve the overarching goals of the agreement. In particular, we do not plan to implement real-name registration for blogging in our Windows Live Spaces service in China.
Microsoft believes the Internet should be fostered and protected as a worldwide vehicle for reliable information and communications, personal expression, innovation and economic development. We therefore believe that, around the world, government actions taken to address security, safety, or other concerns, and which impact free expression and privacy, should be taken with deliberation and restraint.
Microsoft also supports international dialogue and bilateral consultations to promote the consistency of national actions and to maximize the openness, security and reliability of the Internet platform, including the development of a clear set of principles that should guide global Internet companies providing services around the world. To this end, Microsoft has joined with a diverse group of companies, academics, investors, technology leaders and human rights organizations to seek solutions to the free expression and privacy challenges faced by technology and communications companies doing business internationally. This effort aims to produce guiding principles, methods for governance and accountability, and to create a forum for collective action and shared learning on free expression and privacy matters.
The following paragraph has been sent around by Yahoo! to human rights groups and others. Naturally, it's Alibaba's fault!
Yahoo! China, which is managed and controlled by Alibaba, signed a self-disciplinary pledge that recommends Chinese internet companies encourage real-name blog registration. While the pledge supports certain generally recognized online safety measures, we believe the real-name registration aspect of the pledge presents potential risks to free expression and privacy. When we became aware of the possibility of the pledge, we expressed our strong concerns to Yahoo! China. Alibaba, which has day-to-day decision-making authority over Yahoo! China, chose to have Yahoo! China sign the pledge, although we understand they do not currently plan to implement real-name registration for bloggers. Yahoo! Inc. is deeply committed to freedom of expression and privacy. We are actively engaged with the U.S. Department of State on these issues, and we are also working closely with other technology companies, human rights groups and academics to develop a framework to address human rights concerns globally.