Media Releases

Researchers Uncover Hidden Censorship on Chinese Live Streaming Apps

November 1, 2016

Toron­to, ON – Researchers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Cit­i­zen Lab are pub­lish­ing a report today that reveals hid­den key­word black­lists that are used to cen­sor chats on three pop­u­lar Chi­nese live stream­ing appli­ca­tions, YY, 9158, and Sina Show. Con­trary to  pri­or research and assump­tions that Inter­net cen­sor­ship in Chi­na oper­ates under a uni­form set of guide­lines, the researchers found uneven imple­men­ta­tion of cen­sor­ship on the live stream­ing  apps they stud­ied.

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. Pop­u­lar streams attract hun­dreds of thou­sands of users who can chat with the live stream­ers and pur­chase vir­tu­al items to give them. The live stream­ers can in turn trade those items for cash.  These plat­forms have giv­en rise to a new gen­er­a­tion of Inter­net celebri­ties who amass audi­ences,  vir­tu­al gifts, prod­uct endorse­ments, and even ven­ture cap­i­tal invest­ment from their video streams.  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.” says Masashi Crete-Nishi­ha­ta, (Research Man­ag­er, Cit­i­zen Lab).

To exam­ine how cen­sor­ship works on these appli­ca­tions, Cit­i­zen Lab researchers reverse engi­neered them — a care­ful process where­by the soft­ware is essen­tial­ly tak­en apart and exam­ined  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. The  researchers were able to col­lect the key­word lists used to trig­ger cen­sor­ship of chat mes­sages.

Jef­frey Knock­el (Senior Researcher, Cit­i­zen Lab) explains: “These apps have built-in lists of  black­list­ed key­words. 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. Our research shows that the social media ecosys­tem in Chi­na — though def­i­nite­ly restrict­ed for users — is more decen­tral­ized, vari­able, and slight­ly chaot­ic.” says Ron Deib­ert, (Direc­tor of the Cit­i­zen Lab).

The researchers are releas­ing their report with a time­line that visu­al­izes events cen­sored by these appli­ca­tions over the past year. This report is part of the Net Alert project, an effort to make research on infor­ma­tion con­trols more acces­si­ble.

The Cit­i­zen Lab , based at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Munk School of Glob­al Affairs, has exten­sive expe­ri­ence uncov­er­ing Inter­net cen­sor­ship prac­tices through net­work mea­sure­ment and reverse engi­neer­ing tech­niques.

Read the Full Report:


For media inquiries, con­tact:

Dena Allen
Pub­lic Affairs & Engage­ment
Munk School of Glob­al Affairs
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tele­phone: 416.946.0123
Mobile: 416.795.3902

Guide on Cit­ing in Media
Title: Har­mo­nized His­to­ries? A year of frag­ment­ed cen­sor­ship across Chi­nese live stream­ing  appli­ca­tions Pub­lished By: The Cit­i­zen Lab, Munk School of Glob­al Affairs, Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, Pub­li­ca­tion Date: 1 Novem­ber 2016