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Google gives Chinese Web users glimpse into censorship

Google declared last week that it would start listing search terms that are censored in China. (Reuters/Jason Lee)

In China, people know enough not to take to the streets to commemorate the brutal crackdown on demonstrators in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Beijing is very quiet in the days before and after June 4. The Internet is a different story.

For all the talk about Great Firewalls, The Golden Shield Project, and other manifestations of online censorship, a significant section of China's Internet community is notorious for finding creative ways around the censors. Their efforts are an indicator of just how hard it is for the authorities to stay ahead of the masses when it comes to quelling popular anger.

Filtering search results on microblogs and search engines is one way the government controls access to information. Few but the most politically savvy Internet users in China realize what is happening when their search results turn up empty or cleansed. China-based search engines are required to clean up the search results of politically sensitive terms so that no undesirable links appear. When Google moved its Chinese search engine to Hong Kong to avoid censorship, it was no longer required to edit search results. However, since then, users have found that when they search sensitive terms, their Internet connection is cut for a minute or more after they get a generic error message.

Last week Google announced that it has taken the unprecedented step of announcing to users which search terms cause the broken connection, thereby adding a layer of transparency to the online censorship process. When users search banned terms now, they receive a message that says, "Please note that searches from mainland China for '[search term]' may lead to the user's connection with Google being temporarily blocked. Google has no control over this interruption."

Many free speech advocates say Google has not gone far enough, and if the company really wants to help Chinese Internet users fight censorship, it has the means to provide tools to do so. But online Chinese have repeatedly proven that when it comes to fighting censorship, they are their own best advocates. Soon after Google made its announcement, activists dug up a list of 456 banned Google search terms that elicit a broken connection, and published it online. Included on the list are several international and Chinese language news sites, names of activists and journalists--including CPJ awardee Jiang Weiping--and the combined search phrase, "June 4 + truth."

Google's move likely won't immediately alter the balance of power in Chinese cyberspace. But for the curious Chinese netizen who uses Google to search "June 4" to learn about her country's history, it may have a powerful impact.

Just how creative can China's online community get in their guerrilla battle with the cyber cops?  Over the years, certain euphemisms have taken hold to refer to June 4, including May 35, and "that year." In response, censors have implemented long lists of banned terms. In some cases, the government response borders on the absurd. China Digital Times routinely tests keywords that have been filtered from search results on Sina Weibo, China's most popular microblogging service. The list in effect this week includes, "fire," "people," "blood," "tanks," all variations of the date June 4, names of key players in the 1989 protest movement, "commemorate," "mourn" and "never forget." Perhaps most absurdly, "yesterday" "today" and "tomorrow" are also banned.

This year, Weibo users creatively evoked the famous image of a solitary man standing in front of a row of tanks: 占占占人, and of a series of tanks (占), a man (人), and people crushed under the tanks (点): 占占占占人 占占占点 占占点占 占点占占 点占占占 灬占占占占. These messages were soon blocked as well. But see you next year . . .

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