Last week, the research lab I pitch in at published the first in a series of posts investigating censorship and privacy concerns in three chat applications: WeChat, LINE, and KakaoTalk. These instant messaging programs, which often replace text messages on smartphones, are expanding rapidly across the world. While WeChat has garnered most of the foreign press, LINE, a Japanese subsidiary of the Korean Internet giant Naver, is no pushover: it has over 200 million registered users, generated $130 million in revenue last year, and is poised for a $10 billion market cap value when it goes public next year.
I’ve already written a number of blog posts translating and describing some of the 150 words that were initially revealed to be on LINE’s “bad words” list. This list, uncovered by Twitter users @hirakujira, was thought to be a precursor to future censorship by the LINE application, but The Citizen Lab’s recent reports uncovered a second set of 370 keywords which do trigger censorship—but only for users who have registered with a Chinese phone number. Thus, LINE users in China would receive error messages when sending messages that contain any of these keywords and asterisked-out text when receiving them.
In addition to the series of 21 blog posts I did on the first chunk of the original list of uncovered “bad words” in LINE, I have translated the remainder of the 150 keywords on the original list as well as translated the majority of the 370 keywords on the recently decrypted list in the following spreadsheets:
- Translation of Line “bad words” list extracted by @hirakujira and confirmed by Citizen Lab (150 words)
- Translation of LINE censorship list decrypted by Citizen Lab (370 words)
Many of the keywords are those that you would expect to find on any list of censored Chinese topics: Tiananmen/June 4, family wealth and corruption by top political officials, supposed infighting within the CCP, and even a whole section of keywords devoted to Bo Xilai. However, others referred to incredibly obscure events that garnered little to no attention from Western or mainstream Chinese media—sometimes the only references to these keywords were in lightly-trafficked message boards and Falun Gong-supported media (which is known for being critical of the Chinese Communist Party). Of course, that might speak to the effective job authorities have done censoring and curtailing the spread of such stories, but it could also be a reflection of a decision by whoever developed these lists to take preemptive measures to prevent the spread of rumors or slander.
Unfortunately (if you’re a government censor), the creation of censorship lists containing rumors that you hope to contain has backfired on them with the revelation of these keywords. Instead of hiding these events forever via censorship or even letting them get forgotten in the sands of time as they likely would have on their own, the publication of the secret keywords gives prominence to previously heretofore overlooked incidents, creating a sort of Streisand Effect. In many ways, the revelation of this censorship keyword list (not the first time this sort of thing has happened: see QQ in 2004 or TOM-Skype in 2013) is a cautionary tale for those responsible for implementing censorship into software or websites.
- 彭丽媛的骚穴 (Peng Liyuan’s hot, er, “hole”): an erotic fanfiction story featuring President Xi Jinping’s wife as the main character.
- 浙江签单哥 (Zhejiang’s receipt-signing Brother): As mentioned in this post, Zhejiang’s Vice minister of propaganda was accused in by netizens of charging over 54 million yuan in expenses to his public office and illegally embezzling hundreds of millions in other corrupt activities. Netizens posted images of his receipts, which contained his signature, thus meriting him the name of “Zhejiang’s receipt-signing-Brother.” However, it is unclear whether or not this is merely a fabricated rumor or contains a kernel of truth since no reliable sources have corroborated the few unofficial user forums that mention this supposed scandal.
- 糊淘淘温饱饱 ("Hu Taotao, Wen Baobao"): a critical song about Hu and Wen, patterned as a nursery rhyme of sorts.
- 李源朝夫人 (Li Yuanchao’s wife): Li is the Vice President of China and his wife, Gao Jianjin, is a music professor; I wasn’t able to find anything negative about her, and in fact there was a very flattering profile of her in Hong Kong media, but the fact that her name appears on this list alongside corrupt officials and others embroiled in scandal makes me curious.
Like most companies who hope to successfully enter the Chinese market, the Japanese company LINE has partnered with a local company, Qihoo 360—best known for its controversial business practices against competitors like Baidu, Microsoft, and Tencent. Of course, this raises more questions: who initiated the implementation of the censorship “features” into LINE? Who is responsible for updating the keyword lists? How much say does LINE have over what gets added to these lists? It’s unlikely LINE or Qihoo would be able to reveal such answers without suffering repercussions from authorities in China, and based on LINE’s response to these censorship revelations, they appear to have justified the censorship of their Chinese users as a necessary step. I guess it will be up to other companies other than LINE to either reveal more about how the censorship system works for foreign content providers or to challenge the system.
Hmm, I have an idea: who wants to start a chat app company with me?