The Squirrels Are Watching

Stop Using Tiananmen Square as a Censorship Test

Posted in Fact and Law by andrewfong on January 13, 2010

I commented on Robert Scoble’s blog in response to Serkan Toto’s use of search results for “Tiananmen Square” on Google.com vs. “天安门广场” on Google.cn to illustrate that some filtering was still up. He’s right, filtering is still up as of now, but that’s a bad search query to illustrate your point. I complained about this earlier with Nicholas Kristof too, and I think this sort of thing illustrates how our preconceived notions about the People’s Republic of China color our view of events there.

I’ve reposted the relevant bits of my comment on Scoble’s blog below:

[U]sing Tiananmen Square as a test query is misleading. Of course “天安门广场” is going to return images of, you know, the actual square! Here are the search results for “天安门广场” in Google.com, which is US-based and uncensored:

http://bit.ly/7C8EsD

Huh, not much there — but this time you can’t blame censorship for it.

Why? Well, English speakers are very likely to associate Tiananmen with the 1989 crackdown, so Google’s search algorithm associates the term “Tiananmen” with images of the tank guy.

On the other hand, for mainland Chinese, “天安门广场” has a meaning outside of the 1989 crackdown. It’s a place, and one that’s smack dab in the middle of Beijing. When someone in China mentions “天安门广场”, they’re probably using it in the context of “there’s a street vendor near the northwest corner of Tiananmen Square selling kites,” not “never forget the people killed here 21 years ago.” Most people on the Internet use it for boring everyday stuff, not to foment dissent over an event a lot of “netizens” are too young to remember. Google’s algorithm picks up on this kind of thing and organically ranks things related directly to the location itself over things related to the one incident that English speakers associate Tiananmen with.

“天安门广场 1989” and “Tiananmen 1989” are probably much better terms for proving your point.

That said, you’re right that Google.cn hasn’t implemented all or some of the de-censoring yet. You can tell, because on the bottom of the search results on Google.cn, you see “据当地法律法规和政策,部分搜索结果未予显示。”

That is, “According to local laws, regulations and policies, some search results are not shown.”

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