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Dash Of Transparency Into Google Censorship

The Wall Street Journal has a good piece on how Chinese censors strive to obscure their craft, so censorship can look like a glitch even to Google's sophisticated technologists.
The Wall Street Journal has a good piece on how Chinese censors strive to obscure their craft, so censorship can look like a glitch even to Google's sophisticated technologists.One result of Google's showdown with China is it's casting a bit of light on how countries censor the Internet, with reporting like this. From the WSJ story:


The Great Firewall is used to screen content on sites based overseas, such as Google.com.hk. Much like its namesake, which is actually an array of fortifications built over centuries rather than a single Great Wall, the Great Firewall involves a number of different tools for controlling content. On one level, access to some overseas sites, such as YouTube and Facebook, is blocked completely. Other sites are filtered with software that can interrupt access when it spots forbidden keywords. Users get a message saying their connections were "reset," or "timed-out." After a few minutes, they can access the sites again. The filtering is often implemented by government-owned Internet service providers at the local level, so blocks often don't happen simultaneously or uniformly. The filtering pattern can seem random. Sometimes one sensitive search term alone won't trigger the interruptions, but a string of such keywords will.

The story explains why Google couldn't say for sure if the problem was its own, or due to censorship. But it makes clear, in an interview with Isaac Mao, director of Shanghai's Social Brain Foundation, why censors promote this confusion:


This works to the advantage of authorities because people are more likely to tolerate or even support censorship if "they don't have a clear concept of the criteria," he says. Unpredictability also makes the system harder to circumvent.

This suggests that anything Google, or any company or group, can do to bring transparency to censorship, the more difficult they'll make life on governments.

Maybe the Internet needs a global "most censored terms" ranking--something as simple as a "Censoring Now" list like the "Trending Now" list on Yahoo's home page. The WSJ story shows that it's not only the information censors want to blot out, it's the act of censoring itself. Reporters Without Borders does some of this hard transparency work with its annual Internet Enemies list, which has 12 countries on the list, and 11 listed as under surveillance. What if the real-time, data-driven transparency of the Internet could be shone on what's being censored?

The WSJ story points to some of the reasons why it would be technically very hard to have a "Who's Censoring What Now" kind of list. But given the pains China takes to cover its censors' tracks, it also points to why it could be effective, if someone could figure out how to do it.