Joseph Kahn on China’s SMS censorship

Joseph Kahn of the NY Times comes right out in his very first sentence and says it’s all about stopping people from using mobile phones to send text messages that might “undermine one-party rule.” As we all know, it’s not about pornography; it’s about power and stability.

The campaign, announced on Friday by the official New China News Agency, comes after text messages sent between China’s nearly 300 million mobile phone users helped to expose the national cover-up of the SARS epidemic last year. Text messages have also generated popular outrage about corruption and abuse cases that had received little attention in the state-controlled media.

It is a sign that while China has embraced Internet and mobile phone technology, the government has also substantially increased its surveillance of digital communications and adopted new methods of preventing people from getting unauthorized information about sensitive subjects.

This week, government officials began making daily inspections of short-message service providers, including Web sites and the leading mobile phone companies. They had already fined 10 providers and forced 20 others to shut down for not properly policing messages passing through their communication systems, the news agency said.

The dispatch said the purpose was to stop the spread of pornographic messages and false or deceptive advertising as well as to block illicit news and information.

We in the US have virtually no idea as to how prevalent text messaging is in Asia. In Beijing, we used it throughout the day as a work tool, making sure, for example, that off-site events were going smoothly. Sending text messages is cheaper than talking on the phone, and many young people in China, Hong Kong and Singapore seem to spend the better part of the day SMS-ing their friends. It’s a social phenomenon the likes of which we have never seen in America.

So censoring SMS messages in China is equivalent to censoring our phone conversations here. SMS is how people “talk” to one another there.

Kahn tells of one young fellow whose message to a friend never got through because it had a 6 and a 4 too close together, and the system apparently watches out for any reference to Tiananmen Square.

People have argued with me that the government doesn’t have time to worry about human rights and unfairness to migrant workers because they are so busy simply trying to keep the world’s most populous country functional. And yet they have the time and resources to read and censor people’s phone messages. I find their priorities strange, but they didn’t ask me.

It appears the only ones who are going to benefit as China continues its great leap backwards is the Chinese company that makes the filtering software, Venus Info Tech. They put out a rather breathless press release yesterday and are anticipating huge demand. Good for them.

UPDATE: China Herald has a very differrent take on the situation. I don’t know who’s right.

The Discussion: 6 Comments

I’ve often wondered why SMS never caught on in the U.S. Here in Europe it’s ubiquitous too.

This new filtering process (and just who is providing hardware and software to this Venus Info Tech company anyway?) could make SMS service so slow and unreliable that users would eventually abandon it. A development the CCP would undoubtedly welcome.

But how, I wonder, would they ever be able to police Bluetooth broadcast messages?

July 3, 2004 @ 2:20 pm | Comment

Fucking Communist censorship bastards. Thank you for letting so many others in the rest of the world know what is really going on in China. You are doing a great service andme and my friends have learned so much about the way China really is from this site. Everyone thinks China is like America now. Thanks for the reality check every day.

July 4, 2004 @ 10:18 pm | Comment

One thing that I am not sure about here is: what happens when they find a text message that they deem inappropriate? Save that number, track down the owner? I think that probably won’t happen. Both my girlfriend and I bought our SIM cards at a stand on the street, so are cards are not registered in my name (mine’s actually registered in the name “Wang Hui” or something, which is always funny when I go to a Unicom office to pay bills; nowadays I just buy the phone re-charge cards to spare the strange looks).. Anyway, i am not worried about getting tracked down for my text messages, even after Unicom starts using this. I think that what will probably happen, if this even works, which it will… to some extent… is not necessarily lead to the arrest of text messagers, but rather simply erase the text message before it gets to its recipient… And in a way, sure, that is not quite as scary, but at the same time it is almost even scarier: basically blasting any so-called “offensive” text messages into oblivion, an unknown limbo where they will stay forever. The scariest part of China, I think, is the things that are erased from the papers, from the internet, or left out of conversation…I send a message, assume it gets to the recipient, but then they never know I sent it unless I ask them “so, did you get the message I sent about [fill in the blank with your favorite sensitive political topic or politically pornographic reference]?” which is not a question I ask often.
But then again, i kind of hesitate to use the word scary in reference to lost text messages, as I did above…. Actually, the fact that this is being considered is just kind of wierd, creepy, and almost pathetic. And probably very difficult to manage.

July 5, 2004 @ 12:22 am | Comment

They’re so concerned about fighting pornography and yet every place I’ve gone to to get an haircut openly offers ‘special massagi’ for me. Last weekend I was asked no less than 6 separate times if I wanted sex as I walked down from one end of Sanlitun Bei Lu to the other, and each person who had asked me was accompanied by a number of young ladies. Despite the obligatory guards and office on the street itself, it can’t get any more conspicuous. If they want to justify their powers to enslave their people, one would hope they’d choose a better excuse.

July 5, 2004 @ 1:32 am | Comment

Asia by blog

Delayed by a day but just as good, here’s the slightly revamped Asia by Blog. Hong Kong, Taiwan and China Peaktalk looks at the fallacy in arguments that HK doesn’t need democracy. ACB reports that China is indifferent to the protests of last week, as …

July 6, 2004 @ 12:37 am | Comment

Text messaging is also extraordinarily popular in Japan, where cell phones are ubiquitous.

July 7, 2004 @ 2:07 am | Comment

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