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U of T researchers uncover hidden censorship on Chinese live streaming apps

A group of women look at their mobile phones outside a mall in Beijing (Photo by WANG ZHAO/AFP/Getty Images)

Three hugely popular Chinese live streaming applications are being routinely censored, researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab have revealed.

The researchers at the Citizen Lab, which is based at the Munk School of Global Affairs, said that hidden keyword blacklists are used to censor chats on the live streaming applications: YY, 9158, and Sina Show.

Read the CBC coverage of the story

Live streaming applications have gained huge popularity in China in recent years, with millions of users flocking to them to share karaoke performances, game sessions, and glimpses of their everyday lives. However, the growing popularity of these apps has been met with increased pressure from the Chinese government to ensure real name registration of live streaming performers and censorship of prohibited content.

“Social media companies in China are held responsible and liable for content on their platforms, and are expected to control content, or face punishment from the government. Our research shows how this system works in practice,” said Citizen Lab Research Manager Masashi Crete-Nishihata.

The researchers reverse engineered the apps to discover how the censorship worked – taking apart the software and examining it from the inside-out. They found that censorship is done on the client-side, meaning all the rules to perform censorship are inside of the application running on your phone or computer.

“These apps have built-in lists of blacklisted keywords,” said Jeffrey Knockel, a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab. “If you send any of these keywords, your chat message is censored. These keyword lists give a behind the scenes look into how social media is censored in China.”

The researchers tracked updates to the keyword lists over a year and found that new terms were often added in reaction to sensitive events. Overall, they found limited overlap in the blacklisted keywords used by the companies. These findings suggest that while the Chinese government may set general expectations about taboo topics, decisions on what exactly to censor are left primarily to companies themselves.

China has the most Internet users in the world and one of the strictest regimes of information control. This new report offers a nuanced and in-depth view of how social media is censored in this country.

“Many people believe China censors the Internet in a uniform, monolithic manner,” said political science expert Ron Deibert, a professor in the Faculty of Arts & Science and the director of Citizen Lab. “Our research shows that the social media ecosystem in China – though definitely restricted for users – is more decentralized, variable, and slightly chaotic.” 

The report is part of the Net Alert project, an effort to make research on information controls more accessible.

Read the full report