A few days ago, I wrote about a rant posted to Sina Weibo and spotted by Global Voices Online in which an alleged member of Sina’s censorship team explains the company’s censorship in part by saying that Sina doesn’t want to censor weibo posts, but it is required to do so in order to follow Chinese law.
That’s a refrain we hear from Chinese internet companies over and over again when it comes to censorship: ‘we don’t want to be doing this, but these are the rules of the game in China, and we have to play along.’ That is true, of course; any company that didn’t censor its user-generated content for the domestic market would be on the fast track to being shut down. But it is also a little bit of a lie. If these companies only censor because it is mandated by the Chinese government, why are their services still censored for users abroad?
Just a few hours ago we noticed that Tencent’s WeChat app was censoring “sensitive” words, even in some cases where both the sender and the receiver of the “sensitive” message were outside China. But Tencent is not an outlier. Weibo posts from overseas that contain sensitive words still get deleted, and politically sensitive searches are blocked for everyone, not just users in China. If I search for “Tiananmen” on Baidu from the US, I still get heavily censored responses. Every other Chinese web platform I’m aware of operates the same way; all content is censored according to Chinese law, even content that is being sent and received outside of China’s borders.
The obvious reason for this is that most of these companies have their servers within China’s borders, so content sent and recieved outside China still has to go through China along the way. When I post a message to weibo, for example, even though I am in the United States, that message has to be transmitted to Sina’s servers in China, which ostensibly have to be scrubbed in accordance with government policy. The same general principle can be applied to most other Chinese internet companies, too. So they really are trapped after all then, right?
Well, yes and no. Technically and legally, it should be possible for any Chinese company to set up servers and offices outside of China, from which it should be free to serve uncensored content to users without violating Chinese law, so long as those users were not in China. In fact, they could probably do it legally from Hong Kong (despite being technically a part of China, Hong Kong has different internet laws). And while that certainly would require some effort, many of the companies we’re talking about (especially Tencent and Baidu) already have extensive operations abroad, and virtually everybody has an office in Hong Kong.
If these companies were truly committed to freedom of speech, they could establish overseas servers and a technical process such that when I post to weibo, for example, the post might need to be hidden from domestic users but could still be displayed to Sina’s international user base. Yet none of them (that I’m aware of) actually offer this sort of service. The reason is not that it’s impossible, it’s just that it isn’t a priority.
(Granted, the vast majority of these companies’ user bases are within mainland China. But most of them also have millions of users collectively in Hong Kong and overseas in Taiwan and among the immigrants and students living in the West.)
I do not mean to suggest that Chinese internet companies are evil, or that they benefit much from censoring content. The reality is that they all know their users would be happier with uncensored content, but even in a space where Chinese laws do not technically apply, un-censoring “sensitive” things could potentially damage their relationship with the government. It seems all of these companies have made the calculation that the potential benefits gained from un-censoring overseas content do not yet outweigh the risks such a move would generate for the company’s domestic operations and continued relations with the government.
That is each company’s choice to make, and I do not condemn them for making it. To a certain extent, I buy the Sina censor’s argument that a censored weibo (for example) is still better than none at all. At the same time, though, I think the narrative of victimhood many of these companies present to the outside world — that they are forced by the government to censor user-generated content — is misleading. Any Chinese internet company could offer completely uncensored service outside China’s borders if it so chose. Most have them have simply decided that doing so would be bad for business.
That, of course, is a perfectly fair decision for a business to make. But I wonder at what point that decision is going to harm these companies’ aspirations of overseas growth. How much faster would Sina Weibo grow in Taiwan if it was uncensored? How big could WeChat be if it didn’t have the stigma of political censorship draped around its neck like a dead albatross? For most overseas users, censorship of China-related topics is going to be a little-noticed minor annoyance, but it is absolutely terrible for marketing and branding. That is doubly true if the companies are also not transparent about what is allowed and what isn’t, which is often the case on Chinese content platforms.
Just as global internet companies adjust their practices in accordance with Chinese laws and customs when they enter the country, Chinese internet companies need to embrace a freer global internet culture as they move increasingly outside their home country if they want to have any hope of competing with other global brands. Most users are not going to choose a censored platform over an uncensored one voluntarily, so if Chinese internet companies really want to make waves abroad, they’ll have to do more than just complain about their legal obligation to censor.
The level of transparency and free exchange many users demand may be illegal in China, but the barriers stopping Chinese companies from implementing a freer exchange for overseas users — both existing users and ones that they hope to attract in the future — are financial and (corporate) cultural, not legal barriers.