On a recent trip to Beijing I visited Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer who is suing the Chinese web portal and blog-hosting service, Sohu, for censoring several of his blog posts. He wrote about our conversation here. The International Herald Tribune has an Associated Press article about him this week here. Liu argues that Sohu violated its own user contract by censoring his posts - since his posts discussing various legal issues did not violate any law, and did not fit the description of type of content that Sohu's user agreement says must not be published. Liu's case was thrown out by the Haidian district court in Beijing, but he is appealing to the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate Court. The odds on his appeal getting much of anywhere are considered rather long.
Liu's office is a dusty low-rent affair in a rabbit-warren of offices inside a hotel, inside a shopping center across from Beijing's West Train Station. Liu is the classic pulblic-defender type who you can find in many countries: dogged, determined, believing fervently in everybody's right to legal defense and a their day in court. China has a constitution and a legal system and he takes them both seriously - along with the rights that they are supposed to grant China's citizens. He defends people accused of all kinds of crimes who don't have connections or resources to hire fancy lawyers. He says a foreign journalist recently asked him why, as a Communist Party member, he was defending people accused of theft or murder. He says there is no conflict: after all he is serving the people, isn't he?
Liu is obsessed with the law, with justice, with the legal process. He is so obsessed, in fact, that he writes about these topics on over a dozen blog-hosting services - and says he posts to about six of his blogs nearly every day. All of his blogs, he says, have censored his postings at various times. But they all censor his writings differently: some censor much more heavily than others, some have their staff members review his posts before they appear publicly, some notify him that his content has been deleted and send it back to him, some just mask from public view it or delete it without explanation. The articles he is suing Sohu for blocking, he was able to post on Sina with no problem. When he logs into the administrative area of his blog, he can see the content of his post, marked by a message warning him that the post has been locked and unpublished. Here is a photo I took when he showed me the screen (click to enlarge):
It says: "Dear Blogger-friend, Hello! We are very sorry to inform you that due to certain reasons this blog post is not suitable to be publicly shown and has been locked down. You can see the original text and photos through this page. Thank you for your understanding and support of Sohu. [Then it gives the number of a 24 hour service hotline and service e-mail.]
Liu's experience is very consistent with the system of internal censorship carried out by Chinese blog-hosting companies as described by Reporters Without Borders' latest report, "Journey to the heart of Internet censorship." The report describes how Chinese Internet companies, especially blog-hosting companies and others dealing with user generated content, are required to police and censor their users in order to keep their business licenses. It describes how all web companies have a section or department for monitoring and censoring user content, how executives of all Beijing-based web companies are required to attend weekly meetings with the Internet Information Administrative Bureau. It also describes - which is consistent with what I've heard - that the first line of control over web content is directed to a great extent by the city-level Internet authorities, which results in wide variation over the extent and methods of censorship by companies based in different cities and provinces.
Chinese internet censorship has two parts, external and internal: a filtering system blocks external websites from being seen by people inside China unless they use circumvention technology like proxy servers; the internal system controls content published on websites hosted on computer servers inside China. That first part is what people call the "great firewall of China," (which researchers point out is not a real firewall) that controls access to external websites by people inside China. This filtering system is well documented by the Open Net Initiative and others. The system Liu experiences every day, whose internal workings Reporters Without Borders describes in its report, is part of the internal censorship system. This system of internal, company-level controls which began to take shape in 2005 is more thorough and irreversible than the externally-directed "great firewall" system. Content posted on websites hosted on servers overseas can't be taken down by Chinese authorities (unless they successfully pressure foreign companies to take it down), so generally if an Internet user knows how to use a proxy server, they can still access the content. Under the internal control system, authorities pressure web companies and service providers to keep certain kinds of content off the web altogether - to the greatest extent possible. The reason why thousands of Internet Data Centers (IDC's) were shut down beginning last month in the run-up for the politically sensitive 17th Party Congress was that the websites hosted on them were not adequately able to control their user generated content in the way that Sohu, Sina, and the other big Web2.0 companies do, under the "guidance" of various government and Party departments as the RWB report describes.
Just as China's filtering system of external websites is unparalleled in the world in terms of its success and complexity, so is China's internal web censorship system. In effect, the Chinese government co-opts the private sector into doing its censorship work. It is a model which I am sure many governments around the world will be eager to emulate if they aren't already doing so.