China

Chinese tech companies appear to censor Uyghur and Tibetan

Public concerns about tech-enabled suppression of ethnic minorities have deepened.

person rides an escalator past a Bilibili Inc. advertisement at a subway station in Shanghai

Uyghur scholars believe tech companies ban minority languages to preemptively avoid trouble, instead of being ordered by Beijing to do so.

Photo: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Just within the past week, two Chinese tech companies that boast of their diversity appeared to have removed Uyghur and Tibetan language offerings, deepening public concerns about the tech-enabled suppression of China's ethnic minorities.

First it was Talkmate, a language-learning app that partners with UNESCO, that posted via its official Weibo account that it had "temporarily" taken down Tibetan and Uyghur language classes "due to government policies." There is no set date for them to return. This announcement was posted last Friday but appears to have been removed. Talkmate is developed by Beijing CooLanguage Times Education Science and Technology Company, a private company. The app, which appears to champion linguistic diversity, offers courses in nearly 100 languages, from Urdu and Montenegrin to Creole and Slovak.

A few days later, web users noticed that popular Chinese streaming service Bilibili had banned comments posted in Uyghur and Tibetan. Screen recordings shared by Fergus Ryan, a senior analyst with ASPI's International Cyber Policy Centre, showed that when he tried to type comments in Uyghur and Tibetan, he received error messages that read: "Comment contains sensitive information." By contrast, comments in non-Mandarin languages appeared to be fine. Judging from screenshots shared by Bilibili users, Bilibili started censoring Uyghur comments as early as summer 2020.

Like Talkmate, Bilibili also boasts of its inclusivity. For years, the platform was a hub for China's ACG [anime, comic and games] fans and a safe haven for various other subcultures. But this once-quirky site has become visibly less edgy — and more nationalist — in the past few years as the Nasdaq-listed company shifted business strategy to attract a mainstream audience.

Neither Bilibili nor Talkmate responded to Protocol's requests for comment.

Talkmate and Bilibili aren't the only Chinese apps that censor ethnic minority languages. A former ByteDance worker told Protocol earlier this year that the company's software engineers had received requests from in-house content moderators to develop an algorithm that could detect Uyghur in a Douyin live stream and then automatically cut the stream off.

On Douyin, TikTok's Chinese original, whenever livestreamers speak an ethnic minority language and/or a dialect that the majority of Mandarin-speakers don't understand, they will receive a warning to switch to Mandarin. If they don't do that, Douyin's content moderators will manually cut off the livestream, regardless of the actual content.

One major reason for this policy was a lack of employees who actually spoke Uyghur. "When it comes to Uyghur, with an algorithm that did this automatically, the moderators wouldn't have to be responsible for missing content that authorities could deem to have instigated 'separatism' or 'terrorism,'" the former ByteDance worker told Protocol. The worker added that their team ended up not creating a tool to censor Uyghur speech because they didn't have enough Uyghur language data points in their system, and popular livestreams had already been under close monitoring.

Mandarin is China's official language; over 70% of citizens speak it. China's constitution enshrines the freedom for all ethnicities to "use and develop their own spoken and written languages." But several ethnic minority languages, namely Uyghur, Tibetan and, to a certain extent, Mongolian, have been pushed to the margins under Xi Jinping's rule as the Party takes an increasingly aggressive stance on ethnic assimilation, according to Human Rights Watch.

Earlier this year, the head of the National People's Congress' Legislative Affairs Commission declared that local regulations that allow schools to teach in minority languages are "inconsistent" with the constitution and other national laws.

Darren Byler, an anthropologist at Simon Fraser University who has researched the technology and politics of urban life in Xinjiang, told Protocol that he's not aware of central government policies that require tech companies to filter ethnic minority languages.

"Outside of Xinjiang I've also seen tech firms selectively delete Uyghur-language videos," Byler said. "But it appears to be more about the company's own concern with compliance or preventing trouble rather than a direct order from [the] central government."

"If there are policies that support this, it likely is couched as a national security concern," Byler added. "The state appears to be quite concerned that uncensored or unevaluated Uyghur speech be permitted to circulate freely."

Fintech

Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more.

Keep Reading Show less
FTA
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.
Enterprise

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison (@dgoodison) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep Reading Show less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.

Enterprise

Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins