Under Growing Pressure, Firms Outsource Censorship

Under Growing Pressure, Firms Outsource Censorship

Chinese authorities have long passed on much of the work of online censorship enforcement to domestic tech companies: in 2013, for example, Reuters published an interview with four former in-house content monitors at Sina Weibo. Firms have since responded to mounting political pressures with expanded internal censorship workforces, sometimes augmented with volunteer recruits. At The New York Times this week, Li Yuan described the growth of outsourced censorship services. While efforts to reliably automate the process face stubborn challenges in frequently coded or allusive political references, human workers require education about political sensitivities which most have never encountered before.

"We’re the Foxconn in the data industry," said Mr. Yang, comparing his firm to the biggest contract manufacturer that makes iPhones and other products for Apple.

[…] New hires start with weeklong "theory" training, during which senior employees teach them the sensitive information that they didn’t know before.

"My office is next to the big training room," Mr. Yang said. "I often hear the surprised sounds of ‘Ah, ah, ah.’"

"They didn’t know things like June 4," he added, referring to the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. "They really didn’t know."

[…] Workers are briefed at the beginning of their shift on the newest censoring instructions sent by clients, which the clients themselves receive from government censors. Workers then must answer about 10 questions designed to test their memory. The results of the exam affect the workers’ pay.

[…] According to Beyondsoft’s website, its content monitoring service, called Rainbow Shield, has compiled over 100,000 basic sensitive words and over three million derivative words. Politically sensitive words make up one-third of the total, followed by words related to pornography, prostitution, gambling and knives. [Source]

At Motherboard last month, Huizhong Wu highlighted the similar use of outsourced labor to train artificial intelligence algorithms.

The Wall Street Journal’s Yoko Kubota and Liza Lin wrote last week that the burden of censorship compliance continues to grow as tech firms also face a cooling business environment:

Chinese companies are accustomed to obeying government orders, but in recent months pressure to fall in line with Beijing’s mandates has intensified, people working at tech companies say and government actions show.

Powerful companies including Tencent Holdings Ltd., Beijing Bytedance Technology Co. and ride-share company Didi Chuxing Technology Co., and others have all been slapped for infractions involving objectionable content and consumer safety.

The government-affairs team at one of China’s biggest internet companies has shifted its focus to working more closely with the Communist Party, instead of high-level ministry bureaucrats, underscoring the growing influence of party control in the tech sector, a person familiar with the situation said.

At another tech company a manager said pressure has increased. "We don’t dare to do anything that the government doesn’t agree to," the manager said. "The consequences could be very grave."

The woes of heightened scrutiny are compounded by China’s economic downturn. Costs to meet new regulations are pinching companies as consumers spend less. [Source]

Pressure is growing on lower-level government bodies as well as private companies, Pei Li and Adam Jourdan reported at Reuters last week.

The State Council issued the guidelines late on [December 27] saying that authorities’ social media presence needed more regulation and vowed to clean up dormant "zombie" accounts and "shocking" comment from official channels.

"This has a negative impact on the image and the public trust in the government," the cabinet said on its website.

[…] The State Council said government accounts "cannot express any personal emotions or opinions, and normally should only repost information from government websites or from sources recognized by government".

Authorities were also forbidden from fabricating social media data or paying for fake followers, it said.

In July, a verified Weibo account of the Yueyang municipal government in Hunan province called a netizen an "environment protection bitch" in a repost responding to concern about a waste incineration plant. It later issued an apology. [Source]


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