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Inside China’s Renewed War To Purge the Internet

Censorship

Beijing has been incessantly harping on about its successful transition to an open economy and plans to further liberalize its markets to foreign investors. Yet, some critical facets of the world’s second-largest economy are becoming a lot less free.

China, the leading surveillance state, has doubled down on internet censorship and plans to police its internet on a scale never witnessed before including banning videos of people with tattoos or even smoking.

The Middle Kingdom has unfurled an all-out war to clean up its networks, with AI now being extensively employed to augment efforts by human moderators.

Content moderators are the new digital sheriffs, charged with crawling internet networks and purging them of politically sensitive speech, violence, terrorism,  sexual acts and self-harm.

Here’s a peek inside a Chinese censorship operation.

China’s content moderation in action

Roughly 762 million Chinese, or 54.3 percent of the population, are internet users--by far the largest number of internet users in the world.

Livestreaming is the activity that the authorities censor the most—and for good reason. Nearly 400 million Chinese did live streams last year, generating terabytes of data every day and making it easy for the bad actors to slip by undetected. Armies of sensors are therefore required to keep track of all the content generated.

This internet police certainly has its work cut out trying to adjudicate the mountains of content. With AI-enabled censorship now prevalent, how do you train your AI chips to judge literally an infinite variety of settings?

For instance, when is a bikini allowed in a live-streaming app and when does it become illegal?

To an algorithm, a bikini is a bikini. But to a human sensor, setting and context are what really matters. A bikini at a swimming pool might be perfectly alright yet a skimpy two-piece at the movies might call for flagging.

Beijing-based Inke is a large live-streaming company boasting 25 million users. The company is also one of the country’s leading content moderators, with a workforce of 1,200 mostly fresh graduates. Inke employs AI algorithms and facial recognition software to help its army of human moderators do their jobs.

AI mostly handles the grunt work of the censorship process, including labeling, rating, and sorting content. That’s the case because huge amounts of resources would be required to train AI algorithms to judge context as efficiently as human censors. The sorted content is then graded in ascending order of risk, which allows the reviewer to monitor large volumes of low-risk content in a short time, while higher risk content is flagged for further review.

So, which activity is most censored? Smoking, because the authorities consider it an unhealthy lifestyle. People with excessive tattoos are also a big no-no.

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Platforms like Inke are under duress by the government to ensure that no potentially disruptive content is freely streamed. For instance, the company recently pinpointed the site of demonstrations and quickly deployed positioning software to block all streaming within a 10-km radius. Never mind that the outcry was simply directed at a local government that had plans to build a local refuse incineration plant.

Perils of the Great Firewall

China also closely patrols online activity and flags content that is deemed as being critical of the ruling Communist Party including politically sensitive terms such as Tibet’s  Dalai Lama. Beijing often justifies the “Great Firewall”, as state censorship is often called, by saying that every state has the right to control its domestic internet space aka cyber sovereignty.

To be fair, some types of surveillance appear productive and even justifiable. For instance, timely content moderation by Facebook might have helped avert real-world violence incited by viral content in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Some Chinese are positive about state surveillance because they feel someone’s at least watching their back. James Watson, Nobel Prize winner for discovering the structure of DNA, has argued that compulsory DNA fingerprinting could be helpful because it would take away people’s liberty to commit a crime.

Yet, the overbearing type of surveillance that Beijing subjects its citizens is not only an indignity but also denies them their basic human rights. It’s precisely this platform that the government used to suppress a Muslim minority called the Uighurs and other minorities.

But China is in good company.

Here in the United States, the NSA has been spying on Americans for years, and by 2010 had accumulated more DNA records than the Chinese government according to Wall Street Journal data.  While the US might not have an atrocious human rights record in China’s league, the biggest problem of the Surveillance State is not so much because it violates standards of privacy but because, in the wrong hands, fuels control and can wreak untold damage.

By Alex Kimani for conil.me

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