Banned Words Make For Fun Research

By Martin Salazar

One might expect search terms like “democracy movement,””Tiananmen incident” and even “Playboy magazine” to be blackballed by the People’s Republic of China.

But Polynices — the Greek mythology figure who ticked off his father Oedipus so much that he was cursed to die by his brother’s hand? Yep. The ill-fated lad has somehow managed to land himself on China’s forbidden list of Internet searches.

“Polynices is, I guess, associated with anarchy in some way,” said Jed Crandall, a University of New Mexico assistant professor who is working with researchers from the University of California- Davis to unravel the ins and outs of Chinese Internet censorship. The researchers bounce potentially controversial words off Chinese Internet search engines and publish lists of the ones that apparently have been blocked.

Davis, who teaches computer science classes at UNM, began working on the project about 18 months ago while he was a graduate student at UC-Davis.

So far, the project has been a labor of love for the scientists, who have yet to get funding for the research. Crandall said two proposals have been submitted to the National Science Foundation, and they’re waiting for responses.

The Chinese use what Crandall calls a sophisticated system for censoring Internet content. Rather than blocking specific Web addresses, the system detects banned words in data moving through a network and it sends reset commands that break the connection.

The censorship could impact news coverage of the Olympic games in China, Crandall said. He noted that reporters in China could have a difficult time finding out about protests, hunger strikes or similar events because of the Internet filtering.

While China’s keyword filters are sophisticated, Crandall said, they don’t always work. Among his group’s findings is that a little more than a quarter of the paths tested into China didn’t have a filtering router, meaning the researchers were able to find the banned words. He said the filter also has a tough time preventing the searcher from accessing banned material during busy periods.

Beyond making certain content inaccessible, the goal of the censorship may also be to stop protests and perhaps even to create trade barriers for U.S. companies, Crandall said.

“There are all kinds of different reasons for censorship,” he said. “We want to understand the technical issues of censorship, how it’s implemented and then also how it’s applied so that we can make effective policy in this country.”

It takes the researchers at least a month to test the Chinese filters and figure out what is being blocked. Crandall said his research group eventually would like to be able to track banned words on a daily basis.

He said the censored list changes from time to time and that the banned words and phrases vary somewhat from one Internet service provider to another and from one region to another.

Censored phrases

These are some of the Internet phrases banned in China:

  • Eighty-nine: the year of the Tiananmen Square protest
  • Anti-corruption forum
  • Sky burial: a ritual practiced by Tibetans
  • Mein Kampf: A book by Adolf Hitler
  • Hitler: recently removed from list
  • Democracy movement
  • Brainwash
  • Eroticism
  • Playboy magazine
  • Brutal torture


Image Caption: Eteocles and Polynices, by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo