Zhang Lifan (章立凡): Sensitive Empire: A Conversation With the Internet Monitoring Robot

From blogger Zhang Lifan’s blog, translated by CDT:

I have always had a pretty good relationship with NetEase.*  The news section of their website frequently posts articles I’ve written.  Four years ago I quietly started a blog on NetEase.  Afterwards, a NetEase editor sent me a letter inviting me to start a blog, to which I responded that I already had.  Thereafter, the editor took it upon herself to repost articles from my other blogs.  This practice has continued to the present.  They often promote articles I’ve written on my blog which has greatly increased the number of hits I get.  Because of this, I’ve always felt a great sense of gratitude towards this website.

Going into the latter half of 2009, however, the number of hits on my blog dropped off sharply.  The reason was not clear.  Netizens informed me that when they searched for my blog articles they discovered that “Zhang Lifan” had become a “sensitive word.”  I gave it a try myself.  When I searched [on NetEase] under blog titles for “Zhang Lifan” a window popped up that read: The content you have entered contains a sensitive keyword.  Displaying [the relevant search result] is prohibited!”

On July 20, 2010, my NetEase blog was blocked.  Ten days after I asked around to get a diagnosis, my blog was unblocked.  Since then, blog entries are still continually being screened at the same time as notices appear on my page stating that content on my blog is in violation of the rules and that I can apply online for an expedited review of the matter.  After I click on the button to apply to have the matter reviewed, the lock on my blog is lifted within one or two days.  However, there have also been times when the lock has not been lifted.  Recently, the screening has become more and more serious.  The language informing me that content has been screened has also changed:

“Dear user, because this entry contains content which violates the nation’s “Administration of Internet Information Services Procedures,” we cannot at this time make the content available externally.  We are keenly aware of the effort you have poured into writing this article and are keenly aware of your anxiousness to share this content with your friends.  However, this is in order to be able to continue to provide you with reliable service.  We hope that you will understand.”

The wording is pretty “humane and sympathetic,” but after this friendly reminder the button that once read “apply for review online” has disappeared.  The subtext was clear: when [we] block [you] there is nothing to discuss, and there’s also no way to complain.  I inspected the article myself and found that there was nothing in it that violated the rules.  A lot of articles that I post on my blog have already been published by the print media and can be found on other websites and blogs.  They can also be reposted by other people who have blogs on NetEase.  It looks as though my blog is enjoying “special treatment.”  They are more willing to mistakenly kill a whole article than to let even one character slip by.  An article is run through the filter of “sensitive words” and is automatically blocked if it contains any of those words.

Take my article, “K.P. Chen Sees Through Both Nationalists and Communists” for example.  This article was published in 2010 in issue 37 of New Century.  A number of websites and online forums reposted this article.  NetEase’s news center also reposted this article.  However, this same article was blocked on my personal NetEase blog.

Even though there was no real way to complain, I still had to complain somehow.  After performing a search I discovered that one can complain to the “NetEase Assistant.”  The address is:

http://help.163.com/special/007528M7/xiaoyi_intd.html?a35aqa2

So at around 12:30 on September 10, 2010 I got on this interface.  Below is my conversation with “NetEase Assistant, Little E.”

Zhang Lifan: Posts on my blog are continually being blocked.  Can you tell me whether some filtering setting has been applied [to my blog]?

Little E: Currently there are two main reasons that blogs are being blocked: the content of users’ blogs, and the conduct of users.

Content of users’ blogs: This mainly refers to spreading on one’s blog some content that violates the nation’s laws such as content that is pornographic, gory, violent, etc.  If [your blog] has been screened for this reason, then first delete the illegal content on your blog and then click the link on the message sent to you by the system that reads, “apply online” to resolve the block.

Conduct of users: This mainly refers to certain users that use the blog to send spam or use the blog to engage in personal attacks on other users or other behavior.  It also refers to users who have been reported by other users.  In these instances the system will also block [the reported user’s blog].  Please clean up the illegal content on your blog and then click on the link on the message sent to you by the system that reads, “apply online” to resolve the block.

Zhang Lifan: The content is not illegal, you’re just blocking it based on the fact that it contains certain words that are filtered.  Also, the “apply online” function has disappeared.

Little E: We have recorded your message.  Thank you for your feedback!

Zhang Lifan: The same blog post that is being blocked on my blog is being reposted on the NetEase news center.  Isn’t this a bit ridiculous?

Little E: We have recorded your message.  Thank you for your feedback!

Zhang Lifan: When can I get a real response?  Am I speaking with a robot?

Little E: I don’t understand.  Perhaps you can describe your problem one more time.  When you ask questions, please use correct grammar and avoid using incorrect characters, for example, [don’t say]: “How do blogs change their clothes.” [Note: this is an informal way of saying, “how do I change my blog’s skin, or appearance.”]

Zhang Lifan: I haven’t used incorrect grammar or incorrect characters.  It looks like there is no difference between robots and bureaucrats.  Goodbye.

Little E: Bye Bye ~ If you run into any more problems don’t forget to find me again!

The replies didn’t address my questions.  Besides constantly repeating some precompiled set phrases all I heard was, “We have recorded your message.  Thank you for your feedback.”  I was really speechless.  I could only admire. . .

After this complaint, the article “K.P. Chen Sees Through Both Nationalists and Communists” disappeared from NetEase’s news center.  One week later, the blog post of the same title was unblocked.

Apparently, the robot speaking to me was just a small time gangster; the real mob boss is the robot known as “GFW” [great firewall of China].  The GFW reigns over the virtual “Sensitive Empire of the East.”  This country is experiencing an epidemic of “sensitive-itis.”  The pathogen is a type of “super-filtered virus.”  Every netizen is a carrier of this disease.  Outbreaks are controlled by the programming of the internet.  The scale of the outbreak can be large or small depending on the mood of the mob boss.  At any time, at any place, there is always the possibility of violent outbreaks.

At this point I’m really not sure; is it us that have this disease or is it the empire that has the disease?

September 21, 2010, Wind and Rain Reading Room

* NetEase is a Chinese internet company that operates 163.com, a popular internet portal which supports a search engine, email service, news, and blogs.

** “Little E” is an automatic online interface that attempts to resolve problems people encounter when using NetEase.  The translator has verified that all the replies (and emoticons) given by “little E” are the automatic responses to Zhang Lifan’s queries.

Little E