The Limits of Commercialized Censorship in China

Authored by: Blake Miller

Abstract: Despite massive investment in censorship, politically sensitive content abounds online in China. Some have argued that censorship is centralized and targeted at specific types of content. However, leaked company censorship logs from popular social networking site Sina Weibo show no evidence of this claim. Instead, the logs, which are company notes made in process of censorship, indicate that prevailing explanations overlook fragmentation, principal agent relationships, and corporate delegation inherent in the Chinese censorship system. In China, multiple principals (government bureaucracies) rely on competing agents (internet content providers and social media companies) to enforce censorship policies. These principals are frequently unable to compel their agents to censor content as thoroughly as they would desire. The logs show that corporate agents disobey government censorship directives when doing so gives them an edge over their competitors or when they risk angering their user base. The abundance of politically sensitive information online does not appear to reflect intentional choices. Rather, it reflects the end result of conflicting and contentious informational preferences of bureaucracies, subnational governments, subnational elites, and private media corporations.

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