Another virtual brick has been added to what has been dubbed “The Great Firewall of China.” According to the state-run China Daily, police will provide mobile phone companies with a set of “key words” deemed “unhealthy.” Text messages will then be searched by the cell companies for those phrases. People accused of transmitting unhealthy content will be investigated, and may have their texting capabilities suspended. China Daily suggests that the mobile companies are operating on orders from Beijing. “What if I send messages to my wife with sexual content?” asked one man, quoted in the paper. “Am I also going to be suspended?”
So far, specifics are scarce. For starters, there is no agreement on the precise definition of “unhealthy.” China Daily says the term “is based on 13 criteria handed down by nine central government departments,” but that “no details of the criteria were given.” But a report from the state-run Xinhau news agency specifies that off-limit topics include “expressed or obscure sexual behaviour,” “teasing or insulting content,” “descriptions of some specific parts of the human body,” and anything “that could provoke people’s imagination about sex.” There is also confusion about whether or not the rules will apply to personal texts, or just mass messaging.
It’s been a bad year for Chinese communications freedom. After July riots in Xinjiang, text messaging in the province was frozen for six months: the longest information infrastructure shutdown in history, according to some experts. In January, Google threatened to pull its Chinese search engine, citing concerns about government censorship.
Many worry that the yet-undefined “unhealthy” designation could be applied beyond the sexual realm. Cautioned Abbe Foreman, Temple University professor of information science, in a Fox News interview: “Once you open that door, what’s to stop someone from changing the keyword from ‘sex’ to ‘bomb’ or ‘government’?”