Web Scrubbing in China

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Within days of China being pinpointed as the home of a massive hacking base, the BBC has alleged that China has been regularly blocking their radio and TV broadcasts and their Chinese-language website. A BBC news crew was detained by military personnel and had their video footage confiscated as a condition of their release after filming 'Unit 61398', a secretive Chinese military unit on the outskirts of Shanghai, which had been identified as the source of a hacking operation linked to the Chinese government by US cyber security firm Mandiant.

The BBC released a statement on February 25th on their official website explaining that they had received reports that “World Service English shortwave frequencies are being jammed in China,” and while the source of the jamming could not be definitively located, “the extensive and co-ordinated efforts are indicative of a well-resourced country such as China.” The statement continues, “The BBC strongly condemns this action, which is designed to disrupt audiences’ free access to news and information.” Interestingly, while the BBC has experienced jamming of satellite services in the last couple of years, shortwave frequency jamming is not that common a practice but does affect BBC Persian transmissions in Iran, and was historically used to block BBC broadcasts throughout the Cold War.

The statement is the result of a number of incidents of interference that the BBC have experienced from China: The Guardian reports that BBC television broadcasts often go blank in the middle of sensitive news reports, their Chinese-language website is often blocked and the Chinese-language radio broadcasts have been “intermittently blocked for years.”

The Washington Post and the New York Times have added their voices to those who are claiming that they have been hacked by the team occupying 'Unit 61398' (in order to monitor journalists who cover China and after investigation into the wealth of Wen Jiabao respectively), lending credibility to the BBC's complaints against China. Whereas the Washington Post's claims were simply ignored by the Chinese authorities, and the New York Times had apparently been warned by the Chinese government that their exposé would "have consequences," the BBC have been given a rather obtuse brush-off. In response to the accusations, at a daily press briefing on Tuesday, the foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying stated, “I don't understand this situation,” and suggested that reporters should contact “relevant departments” for further information, but failed to name these departments or specify how one would go about contacting them.

The BBC's accusations coincide with a report by the Epoch Times' Olivia Li into the practice known as 'post-deleting'; her article, titled 'Censoring the Internet: a Lucrative Industry in China', highlights how censorship of internet content has literally become an extremely profitable business. 'Post-deleting' – which consists of exactly what the description says – has become a “grey economy … controlled by public relations companies, website managers, and Party officials tasked with monitoring the Internet.” 

Naturally, a number of companies have sprung up to offer their services to interested parties, referring to themselves innocuously as “Internet Crisis Public Relations Companies.” One such company, Beijing Qihang Internet Public Relations, explains how the process works on their website, and even includes a section which contains tips on how to improve your company by setting up and maintaining a good brand image It also explains why its services are necessary (if not essential) to companies who wish to ensure they aren't throwing their money away on cultivating a good corporate, commercial and public reputation by neglecting to trawl the Internet and get rid of any negative mentions of their brand: “many well-known enterprises spend large amounts of money on establishing their corporate images. If they do not take action to remove negative articles, they could find themselves in a deadly crisis.” Boundaries between webmarketing and censorship are blurred: when does a firm trespass the frontier between SEO and censorship?

Beijing Qihang uses China's largest search engine, Baidu, to delete any offending material, including cached screenshots stored on Baidu's servers. This costs up to tens of thousands of yuan, and according to a report in Beijing-based Century Weekly blocking a search term can cost up to 1 million yuan (US$160, 000).

Ironically, now that many anonymous 'net users have come to see the Internet as a platform for reporting corruption, Chinese officials have become one of the biggest users of these web-scrubbing services: Yage Time Advertising Ltd. estimate that “60 percent of its revenue came from officials in small- and medium-sized cities, most of whom were police chiefs and county governors.”

Mr Zhang, an employee of another business, 306 Internet Brand Consulting, explained in an interview with the Chinese International Business Times that long-term services are offered, and that if preferred, content can be modified instead of deleted. 

While Chinese officials may choose to threaten, ignore or shrug their shoulders in response to accusations of jamming, blocking and censorship, their very reactions combined with the existence of companies which exist simply to scrub the Internet of negativity – whether it's true or false – makes it difficult to have much faith in their protestations of innocence.


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