User privacy concerns on Chinese social-networking sites have led the biggest players to block indexing by Baidu, China's leading search engine, according to Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting.
The blogging site of Sohu.com, China's leading portal, as well as social networking sites including 51.com, Xiaonei, and Hainei have blocked Baidu's spiders from indexing the sites, Marbridge reported. Other search engines may also be blocked.
The reasoning behind this move may reveal a pragmatic commitment to security by obscurity for people who post under their real names and may want to avoid attention from employers, acquaintances, and government monitors.
But if Sohu blogs aren't indexed, there may be radical effects on the Chinese blogosphere.
Regardless, the attempt at security is partial at best. The data, of course, is still published. Just as Americans have gradually come to terms with the fact that placing something on MySpace, Facebook, or other sites may make it accessible to prospective employers or others, data posted on Chinese portals is accessible to a variety of actors.
Even if privacy controls intended to restrict access to approved users are used, the Chinese government's power to look at data contained on servers within its borders makes government surveillance only slightly more circumscribed.
Further, search engines might simply switch to spider IPs or behaviors that get around the blocks, though this may be unlikely given that leading engines tend to obey "no spiders" signs in robots.txt.
This move may still be good for social-networking sites. But for blogs, a block can be disastrous if it isn't optional.
As those of us who blog know all too well, the success of one's work and the likelihood that anyone reads it is dependent on links. Links, links, and more links. But if someone searching for discussions of a certain topic can't find our work, we're out of luck.
For personal blogs, this is no big deal. I could care less if people index my daily musings on a personal blog. But for people who wish to participate in the vibrant world of online discourse, being obscured from search engines is a game changer.
It's unclear to me at this point whether Sohu's block will remove its blogs from the searchable world. But if it does, prepare to see a deluge of Chinese bloggers switching to different platforms.