Wikipedia largely alone in defying Chinese self-censorship demands

August 12, 2013

Hong Kong Government Information Officer Daniel Lai speaks at the International Wikimedia Conference in Hong Kong on Aug. 9. (EPA/Alex Hofford)

American Internet companies that want to operate in China generally have to play by Chinese rules. But Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales told The Wall Street Journal this weekend that his site will never comply with government requests to restrict information in China -- making it one of only a handful of large American sites to do so.

Here, for comparison, are the top 10 American Web sites by global traffic, according to Alexa. Most of the sites that operate in China obey censorship rules, which ban information on politically sensitive topics such Tibet, the spiritual movement Falun Gong, and the 1989 protests and crackdown most commonly associated with Tiananmen Square.

When it comes to defying censors outright, Wikipedia is an exception, though China's Great Firewall also blocks a number of prominent American sites. (That doesn't necessarily imply a stance against censorship on the blocked site's part -- YouTube and Blogspot are both owned by Google, for instance, which has filtered results on its search platform within China before.)

  1. Google: Google has a long and complicated legacy in China, which has put it on both sides of the censorship debate. Since 2010, however, Google’s Chinese search has been based out of Hong Kong, where Chinese censorship laws don’t apply. (Outside of China, the company has a policy of removing pages from search as required by law -- in Germany, for instance, the site takes down pages that glorify Nazism.) In January, Google China removed a feature that told users when their results were censored.
  2. Facebook: Inaccessible in China.
  3. YouTube: Inaccessible in China.
  4. Yahoo: Yahoo has cooperated with both censorship requirements and requests for user information, which resulted in the imprisonment of four dissidents in 2006.
  5. Wikipedia: Wikipedia doesn’t censor its content in China, regardless of language, though China’s Great Firewall automatically blocks controversial pages. Wikipedia offers an encrypted version of the site to help users evade the firewall.
  6. Amazon: Amazon’s stated policy is to follow the laws, including the censorship laws, of the countries where it operates.
  7. Windows Live: Microsoft complies with government takedown and censorship requests in China, per a 2006 company statement, because it believes a censored Internet in China is better than no access at all.
  8. LinkedIn: LinkedIn’s presence in China is still so small that censorship doesn’t appear to have become an issue, though the government has intermittently blocked the site before.
  9. Twitter: Inaccessible in China.
  10. Blogspot: Inaccessible in China.

This sort of self-censorship has been controversial within the United States, where everyone from Human Rights Watch to the House Committee on International Relations has condemned Internet companies and accused them of valuing profits more than human rights.

That also goes a long way toward explaining Wikipedia’s principled stance. Unlike Amazon, which makes hundreds of billions off its China business, Wikipedia is a nonprofit foundation with not as much to gain, financially speaking, from the Chinese market.

That doesn’t make Wikipedia's stand any less important -- but it does make it highly unlikely that any other U.S. sites will follow its example.

Update: Samuel Wade at the China Digital Times points out that, while Google formally follows local censorship laws, it also quietly redirects Chinese users from Google.cn to Google.hk -- which helps them avoid mainland filtering.

Correction: This post originally stated that Google formally complies with government censorship laws in China. While that is the company’s policy in other countries, it has not been Google’s policy in China since 2010. The post has been corrected.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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