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How Censorship of Chinese Open-Source Coders Could Backfire

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For now, there are few clues as to what prompted the change, but censorship of certain types of language – profanity, pornography and politically sensitive words – has been creeping onto the platform for a while. On the official and public sites of Gitee comments pagethere are several users complaints about how projects were censored for unclear reasons, possibly because technical language was mistaken for a sensitive word.

The immediate result of Gitee’s change on May 18 was that public projects hosted on the platform suddenly became unavailable without notice. Users have complained that this disrupted services or even ruined their business. In order for the code to be released again to the public, developers must submit an application and confirm that it does not contain anything that violates Chinese law or infringes copyrights.

Li has gone through manual review for all of his projects on Gitee, and so far 22 out of 24 have been restored. “Still, I guess the review process is not a one-time thing, so the question is whether the friction of hosting projects will increase in the future,” he says. Yet without a better home alternative, Li expects users to remain: “People may not like what Gitee does, but [Gitee] will still be required to do their daily work.

In the long run, this places an unreasonable burden on developers. “When you code, you also write comments and set names for variables. What developer, writing code, would like to wonder if their code could trigger the hotword list?” Yao said.

Along with almost every other aspect of the internet, the Chinese way of building its own alternative has worked well in recent years. But with open source software, a direct product of cross-border collaboration, China seems to have hit a wall.

“This push to insulate the domestic open-source community from the risks arising from the global community is something that goes completely against the basic proposition of open-source technology development,” says Mercator analyst Rebecca Arcesati. Institute for China Studies and co-author of a report on China’s bet on open-source.

Technologists in China, she says, don’t want to be cut off from the global conversation about software development and may feel uncomfortable with the direction China is taking: “The more Beijing tries to nationalize open source and to create an indigenous ecosystem, minus developers eager to participate in what they perceive to be government-led open source projects.

And severing its global ties prematurely could halt the rapid growth of China’s free software industry before its benefits to the economy can materialize. It’s part of a larger concern that’s overshadowing China’s tech sector as the government has tightened regulation in recent years: Is China sacrificing the long-term benefits of technology for short-term impact?

“I find it hard to see how China can do without these global ties to international open source communities and foundations,” says Arcesati. “We’re not there yet.”


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