An attack on the U.S.-based search-engine Google in mid-June brought to a climax the regime’s campaign to introduce its Internet filtering software Green Dam-Youth Escort.
The regime accused Google.cn (Google China) of providing easy access to pornography on the basis of fabricated evidence. This accusation provided the regime a pretext for shutting down Google search results that can provide links to politically sensitive Web sites.
The charges against Google were aired on CCTV (China Central Television) on June 18 on a top-rated, nationally televised show called “Focus Report.” Similar in format to “60 Minutes” or “20/20,” “Focus Report” has a reputation among China media watchers as being a vehicle for the regime’s propaganda campaigns.
The June 18 show devoted its entire program to an examination of how Google enabled pornography searches in China. Among those interviewed were the vice-director of the NGO China Internet Illegal Information Reporting Center (CIIRC) and a young man who was identified as a college student.
The college student, Gao Ye, complained that the pornographic materials on the Web do great harm, especially through Google’s links. He described how a friend of his had overcome a previous interest in pornography, but then Google had made it very easy for him to find these kinds of Web sites again, causing him to become “disturbed.”
The NGO vice-director, Xi Wei, did demonstrations in front of a computer that complemented what Gao had to say. Xi in particular showed how Google’s Suggest function greatly expanded the list of possible pornographic terms and Web sites.
Bloggers in mainland China, who may have Googled Gao Ye to learn more about him, have reported that he is in fact an intern at the CCTV station.
CIIRC would probably not be identified as an NGO in the West. Its Web site says the Center is supported by the “Ministry of Information Industry, the Ministry of Public Security, and the State Council Information Office of the People's Republic of China.”
The grounds for the accusations on CCTV had been carefully prepared, with the regime apparently using the functionality of Google’s own search engine to condemn Google.
Beginning on June 10, a large number of searches on Google.cn for unusual phrases that might be linked to sex began appearing. The frequency of these searches increased dramatically between June 10 and June 17. After peaking on June 17, the number of these searches just as rapidly declined.
At one point in the “Focus Report” program, the reporter demonstrated Google’s purported saturation with obscene materials by showing that even Googling benign words such as “son” and “mother” could lead one to obscene information on the Web. He showed this by typing in the Google search the Chinese term for son (“erzi”), and immediately the phrase “son, mother, inappropriate relationship” (inappropriate relationship between son and mother) emerged through Google’s Suggest function as the most popular phrase.
Google Suggest is a feature in Google's search function that attempts to guess what users are trying to search for and provide suggestions before they have completed typing their search terms. The company says it uses algorithms with a "wide range of information" to predict the queries, including how popular the search terms are. However, it appears the service is susceptible to manipulation.
In fact, the frequency of the searches for the phrase “son, mother, inappropriate relationship” during the previous week appear to have raised its ranking so that on June 18 Google’s Suggest function returned the phrase as the top result for a search for "son."
According to bloggers in China who have analyzed the data, the number of searches for this phrase increased by 5,950 percent during the week of June 10–17. One hundred percent of these searches originated from somewhere in Beijing.
According to a statement from the Beijing Internet News Information Evaluation Committee, the Chinese regime ordered the Suggest function be disabled on June 18.
A Google spokesperson on June 30 confirmed that the Suggest function was still “temporarily” disabled.
Suggesting a Motive
On June 24, Google.cn was temporarily shut down by the authorities. The next day, the Chinese Communist Party’s official paper, People’s Daily, reported on a statement by the Beijing Internet News Information Evaluation Committee that sharply criticized Google for spreading “pornographic, lewd and vulgar content.”
Many of China’s bloggers laugh at the pretext of the regime’s shutdown of Google, and with good reason. China’s public life sometimes seems to be saturated with sex. Strip clubs are common. Billboards feature naked women, and trade shows sometimes feature naked women to entice interest at booths. In some recent cases, female protesters in Beijing have stripped their clothes off simply to get attention for their protest.
On the Chinese Web, explicit pornography is very easily available, particularly through the Chinese-owned Baidu, the leading search engine in mainland China. One blogger searched for the words “pretty female” on both Baidu and Google.cn and showed screen shots of the results. The Baidu search seemed to have significantly more of the content the regime claims to be concerned about.
Baidu only searches mainland China Web sites. The access Google provides to content around the world has always been a challenge to the regime’s efforts to control the Chinese Internet. In January 2006, Google, in a kowtow to the regime, purged Google.cn’s searches of Web sites not approved by the regime, such as Web sites dealing with Falun Gong, Tibet, the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and freedom of speech.
But even though Google attempted in this way to appease China’s censors, its searches have continued to be an embarrassment for the regime. The Suggest function, which provides keywords and links for related topics, provides the mainland China Internet user with links to sites that the regime has blocked. Google had kept open this small window for the free flow of information—the news that there are specific Web sites the regime will not let one see.
The Uses of Pornography
The attack on Google is part of a larger campaign. On the Web site of CIIRC, one sees articles titled “68 More Porn Web Sites Closed,” “Anti-Porn Campaign Extends to Mobile Messages,” and so on.
A June 25 report by Singapore’s United Morning Post, which is reputed to be very close to the Chinese regime, says: “Because the authorities have already announced the enforcement of installing the Green Dam software in all computers, this policy has received a lot of criticism both domestically and internationally. What happens to Google right now is seen as the authorities’ effort to lay a path for enforcing the Green Dam program.”
The mandatory installation of the Green Dam software, announced on May 18 by the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology as effective July 1, is the regime’s most audacious attempt yet to control the Chinese Internet. Billed as filtering software meant to protect families from pornography, researchers have found that this program has, in addition to a list of pornographic sites, a very large list of keywords related to Falun Gong in particular, and some other forbidden search terms as well.
Green Dam not only prevents the user from accessing sites with the forbidden keywords, it also takes screen shots of the computer every three minutes and records every key stroke. All information about the use of the computer is relayed to a central data base.
Green Dam, in other words, extends China’s censorship from the level of the Internet to the level of the personal computer. Any attempt to use a computer with Green Dam installed on it to defeat the Internet censorship would be reported to the authorities by the computer itself.
The accusations against Google came a little less than two weeks before the July 1 deadline and on the heels of a series of tough critiques of Green Dam in the Western press, objections from U.S. computer manufacturers, and an appeal from the U.S. Commerce Secretary.
The targeting of the U.S.-based Google provided the domestic Chinese audience with a prominent example in the anti-pornography campaign while giving the regime a convenient opportunity to push back against Western pressure regarding Green Dam.
On June 30, the regime announced it was delaying implementation of the Green Dam software. Whether this represents the first step in dropping Green Dam or a mere delay is not yet known.
Additional reporting by Zhou Meihua