Tattling to China Censors a Competitive Weapon for Content/Ad Companies

Reading the NYT’s weekend feature on Google and China, I was surprised to learn companies there commonly turn each other in to government censors, and that this fate befell Google in 2002, after which the engine was first shut down by officials and lost its big head start there.

Among Chinese Internet execs, the common belief is that, before Google opened an office there and before it ever agreed to censor its results, the company found itself blocked because competitor Baidu went straight to government censors with a list of all the bad Tiananmen Square and Falun Gong stuff the search engine was successfully pushing through the country’s filters. (Presumably the content came in the form of cached snippets viewable in the search results pages, since the country could easily block the sites that content came from.) As Clive Thompson writes in the article, “In China, the censorship regime is not only a political tool; it is also a competitive one – a cudgel that private firms use to beat one another with.”

Before the shutdown, Google held about 24 percent of all searches in China, the story reports. Afterwards, none. How much ad revenue did it lose? To what degree was it even monetizing its China traffic then? I’m honestly not sure. If you happen to know, do let me know.

Anyway, I just thought it worth noting that content and search players in China must not only cultivate good relations with the censors, but self-censor to such a degree as to present an opulent face to any competitor that might turn them over in the interest of eating their ad revenues. And as the story notes:

Intimidation and “self-regulation” are, in fact, critical to how the party communicates its censorship rules to private-sector Internet companies… Internet executives in China most likely censor far more material than they need to. The Chinese system relies on a classic psychological truth: self-censorship is always far more comprehensive than formal censorship.

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