As of the beginning of this month, Sina Weibo has made a number of changes to the way they handle their censorship of search results. I’ve previously tweeted about a rising number of searches that are “partially blocked" rather than blocked wholesale with the typical "According to relevant laws, search results are not displayed" message.
Instead, this is the new normal:
Instead of blaming laws for their inability to serve the user what it wants, Sina Weibo has decided to unilaterally shift to a more non-transparent error message stating that no results are found for sensitive keywords.
Of course, this isn’t totally non-transparent. If you’re searching for a common term that you expect results for, for instance the name of Wen Jiabao’s son, and you get zero results returned, it’s pretty obvious that it’s actually blocked. However, the shift in language is rather foreboding (though perhaps quite overdue; why Chinese government officials who monitor the Internet have tolerated such messages stating the obvious—and still do for other sites—is beyond me).
A check of Baidu and Tencent Weibo (the number two most important micro-blogging site in China) still shows the “According to relevant laws” message for various known sensitive keywords, so Sina’s step was perhaps done all on its own and not part of a broader push to move Chinese sites away from announcing to their users that search results have been filtered. The timing of this is no doubt related to the upcoming government transition, and perhaps Sina will go back to the standard blocked error message when they deem it comfortable to do so. However, in a curious twist, a number of keywords that have long been blocked, even blocked up until last week, have since been unblocked totally, for instance, 罢工 (strike), 讣告 (obituary), 咪咪 (breasts), to name but a few. So in some ways, we have one step backward, one step forward. Very curious to see how this plays out in the coming weeks…