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A million-word novel got censored before it was even shared. Now Chinese users want answers.

After a writer was locked out of her novel for including illegal content, Chinese web users are asking questions about just how far the state’s censorship reaches.

July 15, 2022
censorship of online docs concept
Ms Tech

Imagine you are working on your novel on your home computer. It’s nearly finished; you have already written approximately one million words. All of a sudden, the online word processing software tells you that you can no longer open the draft because it contains illegal information. Within an instant, all your words are lost.

This is what happened in June to a Chinese novelist writing under the alias Mitu. She had been working with WPS, a domestic version of cloud-based word processing software such as Google Docs or Microsoft Office 365. In the Chinese literature forum Lkong on June 25, Mitu accused WPS of “spying on and locking my draft,” citing the presence of illegal content. 

The news blew up on social media on July 11 after a few prominent influencer accounts belatedly picked it up. It became the top trending topic on Weibo that day, with users questioning whether WPS is infringing on their privacy. Since then, The Economic Observer, a Chinese publication, has reported that several other online novelists have had their drafts locked for unclear reasons in the past. 

Mitu’s complaint triggered a social media discussion in China about censorship and tech platform responsibility. It has also highlighted the tension between Chinese users’ increasing awareness of privacy and tech companies’ obligation to censor on behalf of the government. “This is a case where perhaps we are seeing that these two things indeed might collide,” says Tom Nunlist, an analyst on China’s cyber and data policy at the Beijing-based research group Trivium China 

While Mitu’s document has been saved online and was previously shared with an editor in 2021, she says she had been the only person editing it this year, when it was suddenly locked. “The content is all clean and can even be published on a [literature] website, but WPS decided it should be locked. Who gave it the right to look into users’ private documents and decide what to do with them arbitrarily?” she wrote.

First released in 1989 by the Chinese software company Kingsoft, WPS claims to have 310 million monthly users. It has partly benefited from government grants and contracts as the Chinese government looked to bolster its own firms over foreign rivals on security grounds.

The firm has released two statements since the initial complaint, clarifying that the software does not censor locally stored files. But the company remains vague about what it does to files shared online. “All platforms that provide online information services are responsible for reviewing the content that’s being spread on their platforms,” a July 13 statement says, citing China’s Cybersecurity Law and other relevant regulations. Kingsoft did not respond to MIT Technology Review’s request for comment.

Commenting beneath WPS’s latest statement on Weibo, users want answers. “Can you guarantee you won’t view our documents? If you can, I’ll keep using it; If you can’t, I’ll ask for a refund for my membership. I’ve renewed it for several years but I’m feeling terrified now,” one user wrote. 

WPS has not officially confirmed whether it is the act of sharing work that triggers the algorithmic censors. But a comment left by WPS’s customer service account on Weibo on July 13 seems to confirm that hypothesis: “Syncing and storing it on cloud won’t trigger the reviews. Only creating a sharing link for the document triggers the review mechanism.” 

Even for Chinese internet users, used to tough censorship laws, this seems like a step too far. 

As document-sharing platforms become mainstream in China, censorship has not been unheard of, but it usually happens only after a document has been widely shared and viewed. For example, in 2020, a Chinese artist known as Jianguo Xiongdi invited the public to contribute to a document listing all the words deemed sensitive in China. It took the doc-sharing platform Shimo almost 10 hours to notice and censor the effort. Until this month, most Chinese users believed that their own files, circulated only among friends and family, wouldn’t receive the same attention and monitoring as long as they remained obscure. 

Users might not be happy but WPS’s practice of reviewing all user documents (if that’s what’s happening) is likely permitted by China’s Cybersecurity Law, says Nunlist. All internet service providers are obligated to delete and block content on their platform “upon discovering information that the law or administrative regulations prohibit the publication or transmission of,” says Article 47 of the law.

In recent years, the Chinese government has been ramping up its information control while also restricting tech companies’ abuse of personal data, best represented by the landmark Personal Information Protection Law. But the WPS controversy shows that there’s an inherent tension between these two policy goals. At least some Chinese users have realized that too. Under the first viral post about the WPS news, the most-liked comment reads: “This is clearly not a problem of Kingsoft, but no one dares to take aim at who really should be responsible.”

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