YouTube ban only erodes China's image

Attempting to seize control of news about Tibet violence, China is only attracting more negative press worldwide as the country prepares to host Olympic games.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
4 min read

Protests break out in some nation around the globe and one of the first things a media-shy government does--just after sending in riot police--is pull the plug on YouTube.

The latest example is China's handling of protests in Tibet. The Chinese government has blocked access to YouTube in that country after scores of clips showing violence between police and protesters were posted to the site, according to hundreds of reports found on Google News.

KU6 censors
On a trip to China in 2007, News.com reporter Michael Kanellos visited the offices of KU6.com, a rapidly growing video-sharing site in China. Here, KU6 workers review videos for "inappropriate" content before they can be posted. Michael Kanellos/CNET News.com

Scores of other media outlets have been blocked or partially blacked out in China, including broadcasts of CNN, the BBC World, and Google News. But it's YouTube that gets all the ink.

In an example of YouTube's influence, blocking access to the video-sharing site is now a sort of scarlet letter for governments. The site, which allows individuals to communicate with mass audiences, has become a symbol of free speech to many, and governments that forbid it are immediately branded around the world as repressive.

This kind of image can't be welcomed by China as it prepares to host this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing.

In its report on China's YouTube ban, The New York Times asks whether the Internet and its ability to enable individuals to communicate with large audiences can stand up to a "ruthless government."

The Web publication for British newspaper The Times wrote Monday: "YouTube has been blocked in the past, and the so-called Great Firewall of China prevents discussion of and searches for many sensitive topics, such as the Tiananmen Square protests."

The ban was reported in newspapers in a host of other countries including Russia, Turkey, Canada, and Ireland.

China is obviously no fan of user-generated content. In January, the Chinese government tried to impose a rule whereby only state-run companies could post videos to the Web. The measure was quickly altered after people began raising questions about freedom of speech.

The country's authorities routinely block sites such as Wikipedia, the BBC, and even live TV transmissions to hinder publication of stories on the Dalai Lama, Falun Gong, or even stories critical of leaders or governments that China is trying to build better relationships with. Last May, while reporter Michael Kanellos watched a CNN story on Myannmar from a hotel in Beijing, the screen went blank. CNN only returned when the news station was broadcasting a different story.

The Great Firewall of China isn't perfect, and it will alternate between blocking particular sites and allowing particular sites, but it does make it more difficult for Chinese citizens to get full information or news stories, according to some analysts.

The Firewall also seems to allow Westerners to view objectionable material in China, while blocking it for Chinese readers. Conceivably, this could be a technique to blunt criticism from the West.

On an Internet connection from a room in a Western-owned hotel, censorship was fairly light, Kanellos reported. Hundreds of images of the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989 popped up on Google Images, particularly images of "Tank Man." News stories, or at least headlines, on controversial subjects came up as well. In an Internet cafe, far fewer images of "Tank Man" appeared, but they could still be found. A few videos of the riots also were available on second-tier video sites like Veoh Networks.

But those results came when the search is conducted in English. Searching for Tiananmen Square on Google's Chinese Image site with Chinese characters revealed no pictures of the riots in 14 pages of images. The only one--on 14 pages of results--that relates to the 1989 riots was a picture of the Goddess of Liberty. On Baidu, the more popular Chinese Web search site, not even that came up.

In the latest controversy, the Chinese government may have been spooked by what happened in Myanmar last year. Clips of troops clashing with protesters were widely videotaped and posted to YouTube before the site was blacked out in Myanmar. By then it was too late. World condemnation of the crackdown was only spurred on by the YouTube ban.

Perhaps the poster child for bans gone wrong is Pakistan. The government there was angered over videos it found disrespectful to Islam and demanded YouTube be blocked. An ISP in Pakistan goofed and erroneously shut down access to YouTube around the world. The government lifted the ban soon after.

The other important issue in all this is how Google will respond to China's ban. A representative said that the company is "looking into the matter," and trying to "ensure that the service is restored as soon as possible."

But what happens if China wants Google to begin self censoring videos or wants to know the names of the people who posted the clips of the Tibet violence?

Yahoo can be used as a model of what can go wrong when negotiating with the Chinese government. The portal handed over information about a journalist who was later sentenced to eight years in prison for posting comments critical of the government online. Yahoo's action has been widely condemned ever since.

CNET News.com staff writer Michael Kanellos contributed to this report.