(BARCELONA) – A comprehensive study of seven academics from the universities of New Mexico, New York and Toronto has revealed that Skype -Microsoft- is working closely with Chinese authorities to monitor the conversations of its citizens through its instant messaging.
In principle, the purpose of the research that has taken almost two years, focused on tracking key words that were to be censored or monitored, as well as when and how this was done. For their analysis, the universities chose two companies that offered chats and instant messaging: TOM-Skype and Sina UC.
The scientists used reverse engineering to access the data. They used a word that is usually forbidden -“fuck”-, to then tour the inside of the system.
“The TOM-Skype platform incorporates surveillance and censorship on its users as part of its basic operation,” says the report. This fact significantly increases the questions about social responsibility linked to the Western company TOM Skype, which owned by Bill Gates’ Microsoft.
During the analyzed period researchers found 4,256 examples of censorship or on terms that are monitored. Analysts explain that they chose these two services because the two instant messaging programs include an ability and intent to censor terms and, in the case of Skype, surveillance.
Neither of the two services are the most popular ones. The market is led by Tecent chat with 190 million users and 75% of the market, compared to 2.1 million TOM-Skype, which is the tenth most popular service in the country. Then there is Sina UC with only 1.1 million.
Of the more than 4,000 terms that are monitored, most have a political tinge, especially related to the Communist Party and its leaders. In second place there are religious terms, but there are words linked to technology (internet addresses) or names, most of them names that belong to dissidents.
But the most interesting part of the study is the choice of words on which censorship is applied, its establishment and its disappearance as a function of specific events. Aside from the obvious like “Tiananmen” or “Tibet,” Chinese censorship moves fast with seemingly innocuous events such as a car accident.
Behind the censorship there are the facts that there is a Ferrari involved in the accident. In the accident there was a young man with two women, all naked, and that the dead driver’s Ling Gu is the son of a senior Communist Party leader. The next day, the interest about the word “Ferrari” grows on the net. The same happens with the words “Master Ling” or “Beijing Ferrari car accident.” Three days after the accident, the monitoring platform from Skype added the words “Beijing Ferrari car accident” and eight days later still added and removed some others.
In December 2012, the state agency reported the arrest of 500 individuals belonging to a sect that proclaimed the end of the world at the end of the year. The next day Skype banned the words “red dragon gospel” and “God in Henan” and that followed until the end of the year.
The July 23, 2011, 40 people died in a train crash in Wenzhou. The authorities were criticized for the rescue, which was a responsibility of the Deputy Minister of Transport, Zhan Dejian. There is no censorship on these services until eight months later, when the company added “Zhang … Train,” among others. The date coincided with the political debate on Mr. Zhang’s promotion to the highest levels of the Party.
Something similar happened with the self-immolations of monks in March 2011. The term “self-immolation” was marked to be watched on Skype and censored on Sina. Coinciding with the anniversary of the Tibetan protests, the services added nine terms such as “student demonstrators.”
The territorial dispute between China and Japan over the islands Diaouyu or Sensaku also inspired the authorities to know what was said there. Terms such as “anti-Japan” or “protects Diaouyu” were under surveillance.
But the record of suspicious terms came with the scandal of Bo Xilai and his wife’s involvement in the murder of a Briton due to corruption issues. A total of 62 terms were tracked by the authorities, including: “bo” “Bo Xilai” in any of its forms.
However, other important events involved not watch on these sites, such as was the national congress of the Communist Party or the election of Hong Kong. The authors justify that because state media have enough to get instructions from the same source filtering through Sina Weibo. Although in the case of the 18th Congress of the CPC, “18 great” or “successor name” had been censored a year and a half earlier.
Skype’s partnership with TOM Online is not recent. It dates from 2005. “Skype has continued the partnership with TOM despite their questionable practices,” says the study. “Also, Skype does not alert users of the potential risk of the platform.”
The researchers point out that since 2011 Skype is owned by Microsoft and in this time it has not altered the relationship of collusion with the Chinese authorities on the communications of its users. Strangely enough, Microsoft is part of GNI, the Global Network Initiative, whose mission is to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the field of new technologies.
Unlike Skype-Microsoft, in 2010, Google decided to leave China and settle in Hong Kong so it wouldn’t have to submit to the rules of censorship in the country. That is not because Google does not censor or spy its users, but because it could not do it the way it wanted.