Ever since June 3rd, visitors to 56.com, one of China's video sharing "YouTube clones," have been unable to access any other part of the site, other than this message below claiming that the site is undergoing "maintenance" and a "major upgrade:"
Due to the vast quantity of material, the message says that the process will require "a certain amount of time." Users' forgiveness is requested.
Another YouTube clone, Tudou, had major problems earlier this year but is now back in operation after what insiders said was a major upgrading of their internal censorship systems so that sensitive video (sexual, political, and perhaps some copyright-violating) could be adequately vetted.
On Monday, the Washington Post asked whether 56.com's troubles are the "beginning of Chinese government taketown of video sites?"
According to a new report by the China Internet Network Information Center, as many as 160 million Chinese now watch online video. It's turning into a powerful mass medium. Thus it's not surprising that the propaganda authorities want to try and control it the way they control broadcast television. Jeremy Goldkorn, Loretta Chao and others have reported on the list of 247 websites whch the State Administration of Radio Film and Television (SARFT) has officially "approved to host Internet audio-visual programs" in China. 56.com, Tudou, and another YouTube clone Youku are conspicuously absent from the list.
In a long and very detailed analysis, Eric Eldon at Venturebeat has further thoughts about the fate of 56.com, whose investors include Sequoia Capital among many other Silicon Valley big names:
But even if the government did shut down the site, the move may not be a concern for neither rivals nor rival investors. The most recent rumor I’ve heard going around in China is that 56.com wasn’t adequately censoring videos about the recent, devastating earthquake in China’s Sichuan province from the site.
Both Youku and Tudou have assured me that they’re very careful about following government regulations, saying that because they are the largest sites in China, they face the most scrutiny from the government before getting approval. Both say they work closely with the government to ensure that content is compliant. The fact that Tudou only went down for a day or so in March, and that Youku went down for only an hour on June 4th (both incidents were also officially called technology problems) suggests that they are keeping the government satisfied.
But he also wonders if there are other factors at play:
...besides possible earthquake-related censorship, perhaps it is 56.com’s place at the intersection of video and social networking apps that could be behind its downtime. Could it be that 56.com has run out of money, or gotten close enough to running out of money that its investors have pulled the plug?
After going over all the details of the technologies and investors behind Tudou, Youku, and 56.com, he concludes:
...Even all these things considered, it’s hard for me to believe that such marquee technology investors would want to shut it down. If nothing else, the combination of the company’s video and social networking services must one day be worth something more than they are now, if one has even a relatively low expectations for either category.
Maybe it’s just a case of 56.com having less stringent filters than its peers in hopes of drawing in more traffic, in which case it might come back once it gets in line with the others.
But the company and its investors have not commented on why it has been offline for nearly three weeks, and the longer it goes offline, the less likely it seems it will ever return. Even if the investors haven’t shut it down yet, the downtime may be the fatal blow against the company’s efforts to raise another, almost certainly necessary funding round.
(UPDATE: Kaiser Kuo has written a funeral dirge for 56.com)
At the Chinese Internet Research Conference, BDA's Duncan Clark gave a presentation about the regulatory challenges faced by anybody hoping to make money in Chinese online video. See his presentation here, the live-blogged summary here, and the WSJ blog writeup here. In his paper, heres's what Duncan to say about the censorship mechanisms that online video companies are putting into place, with help from Silicon Valley VC funds:
Another expense line which weighs heavily on Chinese video sites finances – and their management time - is content filtering. Video sites in China have to adhere to a very strict – yet ill-defined - standard of what content is permissible. In discussions with various online video sites contacted by BDA, company executives were at pains to stress how effective they were in filtering content, either through the dedication of superior numbers of personnel or through the deployment of more sophisticated technology – for example searching for offensive key words (to find a video amidst the torrent of content consumers need to start with a key word) or randomly sampling frames of content and detecting offensive uploads.
Whatever the efficacy of these systems, as the volume of content uploaded increases the burden of hosting and filtering will inevitably increase.
All Internet companies operating inside China on which either feature user generated content or on which user-generated content might appear - Youtube-like video, photo-sharing, blogging, bulletin boards, forums, social networking sites, search engines etc. - are all required to employ teams of people and write internal software programs to keep politically objectionable content off their sites. (I've written about these systems here, here, and here; Reporters Without Borders last year published an accurate report about the whole process here, and my colleague David Bandurski wrote about the regulatory bodies behind the process here.)
One of the interesting things about the system of official regulations, warnings, and punishments is that they are vague: companies are not told very specifically what to do and how - rather, they're warned they'll be in big trouble if they're not good enough at controlling content on an ever-changing list of subjects. As a result, the censorship systems put in place by Chinese Internet companies vary wildly in their thoroughness or in some cases, over-thoroughness. At the Chinese Internet Research Conference at the beginning of our roundtable on Corporate Action and Responsibility I showed a few slides containing screenshots from a research project I'm currently running in which I and my small team are testing to see how various Chinese blog-hosting companies are censoring their users' content. Across 17 different blog-hosting services, there is little consistency so far in our testing in terms of what gets censored or how. Not surprisingly, when we posted a few paragraphs from the Dalai Lama's open letter to the Chinese people, 10 out of 17 services censored it. Some wouldn't allow us to post it at all, others marked it as "waiting for approval" which never came, and others took it down soon after posting. Tianya (which receives Google investment), wouldn't allow us to post. Here's what the error message looked like (click to enlarge):
Other services have their censorship systems so thoroughly automated, they're even censoring state propaganda articles. When we posted the first few paragraphs of this article from Xinhua about President Hu Jintao's visit to a coal mine during the snowstorms and energy crisis in January, two of the 15 blog-hosting services censored it. Mop.com wouldn't even allow us to post:
...and Blogbus put *** over the President's name.
What this shows is that companies are making different choices about how they censor...some more ham-fisted, some lighter, and some heavier, than others.
In his newly published paper, Search Monitor Project: Toward a Measure of Transparency, Nart Villeneuve documents how the Chinese search engines run by Yahoo, Google, Microsoft, and Baidu all have tremendous variation in terms of what they choose to censor and how. He writes:
The data presented in this report indicates that there is not a comprehensive system - such as a list issued by the Chinese government - in place for determining censored content. In fact, the evidence suggests that search engine companies themselves are selecting the specific web sites to be censored raising the possibility of over blocking as well as indicating that there is significant flexibility in choosing how to implement China’s censorship requirements.
So what does this mean? Does this mean that there is room for companies to make choices about what they censor and how they censor it? And that perhaps some of these choices can lead toward at least greater transparency and accountability as far as the user is concerned? Those are some of the questions I asked our conference panel.
Isaac Mao said he thinks that companies that treat their users more intelligently and with greater respect will do better in the long run - especially when it comes to user privacy, but also in terms of censorship. (Although as Deborah Fallows pointed out in an earlier session, survey data indicates that Chinese users appear to have a hight tolerance for censorship.)
Duncan Clark pointed out that the business culture in China forces companies to do whatever necessary to keep the authorities off your back - which means doing things like political censorship and cooperating with police investigations of dissidents that cause American companies to get hauled into Congress and yelled at. This pressure on domestic Chinese companies - and thus pressure on foreign brands that try to compete with them - is unlikely to change until these Chinese companies start having major business interests overseas in markets where they need to gain trust and respect of users who are not as tolerant of censorship and more likely to yell about civil liberties than their Chinese users are. Then, Duncan said, maybe they'll push back harder against Chinese government demands.
Joshua Rozenzweig of the Duihua Foundation was of the view that this is going to be a long hard slog, and that it will be difficult for much to change until China acquires a truly independent judiciary and legal system that serves citizens and their rights rather than the government's interests. But he also pointed out that conversations about these issues are much easier to have when you approach these problems as global problems: that we have problems of governments pressuring companies to infringe upon individual rights everywhere on the globe. If people in China feel that they're being lectured by Westerners from a position of moral superiority, they won't be interested in listening, even if they might agree with some of what you have to say.
I read the panel a quote from a recent article titled China's Holistic Censorship Regime, written for the Far Eastern Economic Review by an anonymous businessperson: "Ultimately, to succeed in China, businesses must assume the goals of the Communist Party as their own."
Isaac Mao disagreed. Why? Because, he said, nobody knows what the Chinese Communist Party's goals are: the CCP doesn't make them clear, nor are the companies clear what the CCP really wants of them. At any rate, there's no monolithic "they" who express a unified "goal." Depending on which ministry or regulatory body you're dealing with at any given time - and which individual at which provincial or city level you happen to be dealing with - the message about what the "goals" are and what the priorities should be varies tremendously. It's the vagueness and uncertainty, Duncan agreed, which makes companies nervous and thus causes them to over-compensate, constantly trying to second-guess the regulators. How do you go up against a headless monster like this and get it to change? Or how do you convince compannies that they can change the way that they choose to respond to this headless monster, so that rather than encouraging it to be even more arbitrary and outrageous, they might instead respond in ways that might encourage it to evolve in a direction more compatible with rule of law and respect for individual rights?
Josh of Duihua made a very important point: if you want to help encourage or lobby for a particular kind of change, first you need to figure out who in the government bureaucracy would benefit from that change. You need to figure out which businesses and other economic interests would profit from that change and how. You figure out who their opponents are in the bureaucracy and how it all fits in to the various inter-ministerial, inter-regional, and other power struggles. Then you will have a better idea of who is most likely to want to listen to you with an open mind, and who might even find your information useful to their own agendas.
So. Where do we go from here? Any ideas, anyone?