China’s online censorship crackdown continues apace

As the flagship Chinese People’s Congress meeting draws ever closer, the online censorship situation in the authoritarian Communist state goes from bad to worse.

We have already reported earlier this week on how WhatsApp, an encrypted communication tool which has surprised many by being available in China for so long, is now completely blocked. But that is not the only development that has been seen as online freedom in China sinks to a new low.

Big fines for China tech companies

It was announced on Monday that the regime has handed down the maximum fines available to three major online companies who it says have failed to remove banned content from their sites. The sites in question are WeChat, Weibo, and the online forum Tieba, which are all hugely popular and widely used being the Great Firewall.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this news is that all three sites are operated by companies which closely cooperate with the raft of censorship and surveillance demands placed upon them by the Chinese regime.

Such cooperation appears to hold little sway with the Cyberspace Administration of China, the online oversight body in China. They have issued notices stating that Baidu (which runs Tieba), Tencent (WeChat) and Sina (Weibo) have all received maximum fines for “failing to fulfil their management duties” and not removing information that “promotes ethnic hatred.”

They did not state how much the fine would be, but the relevant legislation suggests it will be up to 500,000 yuan ($76,000). This is a drop in the ocean for these billion dollar companies, but what is more significant is the message that these fines send out.

It says to the entire internet community in China that no-one is above the new laws that have been introduced this year clamping down on online content that doesn’t meet the requirements of the Chinese Communist Party. If companies of this size can fall victim, then anyone can, so all websites need to get their house in order.

Baidu is the only one of those companies fined to comment on the issue and in a fawning statement they apologised and promised to “work with authorities to rectify the situation and improve the platform’s information verification efforts.”

Weibo’s army of volunteer censors

But Sina Weibo has already been seen to be taking steps to increase censorship across its microblogging network. They have created a competition for users who help them to identify and censor banned content. In a message [in Chinese] on their site this week, they have advertised for 1,000 “Weibo supervisors” to look out for “sexual, illegal, or harmful” content in their spare time.

They have created a special platform for people to report content and offered cash and prizes, including iPhone’s, for those who do well. If you report 200 posts, you will be paid 200 yuan ($30), with the top 10 volunteer censors each month receiving prizes.

Inevitably this competition has been well received. There is nothing many Chinese people like more than the chance to get something for free. It is also bound to lead to content being blocked that shouldn’t be as these censors are incentivised to report more content.

A thousand additional censors in relatively small in a country where the state is believed to employ millions of people to do this job. But the ‘Big Brother’ concept of an army of volunteer Weibo censors spying on each other for money is a chilling one.

As ever, the only real way of getting around the universal censorship and surveillance that exists online in China is by using a VPN. Not every VPN will work for Chinese users as the regime does try and block them. You can find an overview of the best VPNs for China here, all of which will allow users to access the internet uncensored as well as offer privacy and security settings to allow you to voice your opinions online without fear of repercussions.

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