China’s firewall is spreading globally

Under watch.
Under watch.
Image: AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
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For decades, China’s “great firewall” that blocks most foreign internet services remained a vague concept for people outside the country. But the influence of Chinese domestic censorship is now impacting people overseas far more than before.

A series of events around June 4, the day when Beijing’s 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy student protesters in Tiananmen Square took place, has painted a vivid picture of how increasing pressure from Chinese authorities to censor or at least scrutinize online content the Chinese Communist Party finds sensitive can affect the internet experience for users globally.

The decisions the companies make in response to such pressure will have major implications on the internet beyond China: Will users still be able to view and access content legal in their countries but offensive to Beijing?

The question might have seemed absurd only a couple of years ago, but has gained fresh relevance in recent years.

Wix and “China’s long arm of influence”

On Thursday (June 3), Hong Kong democracy activist and lawmaker Nathan Law tweeted that Israeli web hosting service Wix took down a site launched by exiled Hong Kong activists. The site, 2021 Hong Kong Charter,  describes itself as a diaspora effort seeking the international community’s support for democracy and freedom in the city, as well as advocating resistance against the Party’s suppression of dissent at home. All of the charter’s main authors, including Law, are currently overseas in countries like the US and UK.

In a May 24 letter sent to Wix, a copy of which was posted online by Law, the police said it was sending the hosting site a notification under the Hong Kong national security law to take down content on the 2021 Hong Kong charter website as it was  “likely to constitute offences endangering national security.” The company took down the website on May 31, but reinstated it quickly after Law made the incident public. The company apologized for the removal of the website, and vowed to review its screening process to prevent “mistakes such as this” from happening again. Wix didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Because the website is hosted by a foreign corporation outside of China’s jurisdiction, it is a clear example of China’s long arm of influence under the new security law,” Law wrote in a statement in response to the incident. “It is outrageous that a website advocating democracy, even though it is located outside of China, might be blocked just because China considers it subversive.”

The incident appears to be a test case for the extraterritorial reach of the controversial national security law, which was implemented in Hong Kong one year ago. While Beijing has billed the law as a way to restore the city’s stability and prosperity, critics say it helps the authorities to curb dissent as it criminalizes a broad swathe of actions, and is written vaguely enough that any criticism of the Party could plausibly be deemed in violation of the law. In a word, the law is “asserting extraterritorial jurisdiction over every person on the planet,” wrote Donald Clarke, a professor of law at George Washington University, last year.

Already academics teaching about China at US or European universities are concerned they or their students could be exposed to greater legal risk—especially should they discuss Chinese politics online in sessions that could be recorded or joined by uninvited participants.

By sending the request to Wix, the Hong Kong police are not only executing the expansive power granted to them by the security law, but also sending a signal to other foreign tech firms that they could be next to receive a request for hosting content offensive in the eyes of Beijing.

A Hong Kong police statement said the force doesn’t comment on specific cases, but noted that national security law rules authorize police to seek action from platform providers on electronic content that could be an offense in itself under the national security law, or that could cause such an offense to take place. “Lawful use of the Internet by Hong Kong residents can continue and would not be affected,” it said.

“Accidental human error,” tech glitch, or China?

Shortly after the news of the takedown of the Hong Kong charter website, Microsoft’s search engine Bing was caught up in a Chinese censorship controversy.

On Friday, searches for “tank man,” a reference to the famous photo of a man standing in front of a line of tanks during Beijing’s crackdown on students, temporarily turned up no matching images in countries including the US, UK, and Singapore. Microsoft said over the weekend that this was due to an “accidental human error.” Microsoft’s Bing is one of the few foreign services still operating in China, and it does censor those searches according to Chinese regulations.

Around the same time, former Tiananmen student leader Zhou Fengsuo raised issues relating to the availability of Tiananmen content on YouTube and Facebook.

Zhou tweeted on June 5 that a recording of a live stream video commemorating the Tiananmen massacre hosted by Humanitarian China, a group of US-based Chinese activists including Zhou, couldn’t be viewed on the platform. YouTube replied to Zhou citing a possible technical reason for the video issue.

Although Zhou accepted the explanation initially, he tweeted again yesterday, questioning why the video still can’t be viewed. “When can you @TeamYouTube fix this? 2 days after, Humanitarian China’s live stream video commemorating 32 anniversary of #TiananmenSquareMassacre is still unavailable for viewing. What is the problem?” wrote Zhou. Other videos of June 4 commemorations, however, can be viewed normally on Zhou’s YouTube channel.

A YouTube support page indicates that live streams longer than 12 hours may not be automatically archived—in this case the live stream exceeded that cut-off.

Zhou also said that Facebook had suspended a live feed of the human rights group’s June 4 commemoration and shared a screenshot of the platform’s notification that the video “goes against our community standards on spam.”

A Facebook spokesperson said the Live feed was wrongly removed by technology intended to identify possible spam, and has since been restored. “We acknowledge the importance of commemorating important historical events and apologize for this technical error,” the company said.

YouTube didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from Quartz.

Still, Zhou’s suspicion of tech firms is understandable given the timing, and his own past experience.

Last year, Humanitarian China’s Zoom meetings involving participants in the mainland and overseas were interrupted, and its paid account with the video meeting platform was shut down by the company days after the group held a June 4 commemoration on the platform. Although the group’s was eventually reinstated, Zoom admitted that the suspension was at the direct request of Beijing.

Update, June 8: The story was updated to include comments from Facebook and the Hong Kong police.