Reporters Without Borders announced today that it has tested the search engines of China’s two leading Internet portals, Sina and Sohu, after they were shut down from 19 to 21 June for what they described as a “technical upgrade” but which in fact was designed to improve the filtering of their search results.
The press freedom organisation said its tests showed that searches for “6-4” (4 June, the date of the Tiananmen Square in 1989), “Falun gong”, “Tibet independence”, “democracy” and “human rights” were all blocked by both search engines. Three of them even resulted in the user being banned (prevented from making any other search) for one hour. Searches for “press freedom” did yield results, but 80 per cent of them came from “authorised” sources on Sina (70 per cent on Sohu).
Partial tests carried out in South Korea and Taiwan seem however to indicate that the results from these searches vary according to the place where the connection is made.
Yahoo! clear worst offender in censorship tests on search engines
Reporters Without Borders said it found Yahoo! to be the clear worst offender in censorship tests the organisation carried out on Chinese versions of Internet search engines Yahoo!, Google, MSN as well as their local competitor Baidu.
The testing threw up significant variations in the level of filtering. While yahoo.cn censors results as strictly as baidu.cn, search engines google.cn and the beta version of msn.cn let through more information from sources that are not authorized by the authorities.
While Microsoft has just said it does not operate censorship, Reporters Without Borders found that the Chinese version of its search engine displays similar results to those of google.cn, which admits to filtering its content. Searches using a "subversive" key word display on average 83% of pro-Beijing websites on google.cn, against 78% on msn.cn. By contrast, the same type of request on an uncensored search engine, like google.com, produces only 28% of pro-Beijing sources of information. However, Microsoft like Google appears not to filter content by blocking certain keywords but by refusing to include sites considered illegal by the authorities.
The press freedom organisation is particularly shocked by the scale of censorship on yahoo.cn. first because the search results on “subversive” key words are 97% pro-Beijing. It is therefore censoring more than its Chinese competitor Baidu. Above all, the organisation was able to show that requests using certain terms, such as 6-4 (4 June, date of the Tiananmen Square massacre), or "Tibet independence", temporarily blocked the search tool. If you type in one of these terms on the search tool, first you receive an error message. If you then go back to make a new request, even with a neutral key word, yahoo.cn refuses to respond. It takes one hour before the service can be used again. This method is not used by any other foreign search tools; only Baidu uses the same technique.
Reporters Without Borders calls for search engines operating in repressive countries to refuse to censor certain content said to be “protected”, such as information on human rights and democracy. "We are convinced that these companies can still access the Chinese market without betraying their ethical principles. They must however adopt a firm and clear position in relation to the Chinese authorities”, it stressed.
Reporters Without Borders tested Chinese search engines by using the following “subversive” key words: “6-4” (4 June, date of the Tiananmen Square massacre), “Falungong”, "Tibet Independence”, “Democracy”, “Human rights” and “press freedom”. The first ten results displayed by each search engine were analysed and then divided into “authorized” and “unauthorized” sources of information.
Research test on "press freedom" (in Chinese), the first ten results:
Google.com: 7 “unauthorized”, 3 “authorized” sites (72 million results)
Google.cn: 5 "unauthorized", 3 "authorized" (52 million results)
Msn.cn (Beta): 3 "unauthorized", 7 "authorized" (800,000 results)
Yahoo.cn: 1 "unauthorized", 9 "authorized" (240,000 results)
Baidu.cn: 3 "unauthorized", 7 "authorized" (450,000 results)
Full results of the tests carried out by Reporters Without Borders :
Distribution of results
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