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."

Climate

2- and 3-wheelers dominate oil displacement by EVs

Increasingly widespread EV adoption is starting to displace the use of oil, but there's still a lot of work to do.

More electric mopeds on the road could be an oil demand game-changer.

Photo: Humphrey Muleba/Unsplash

Electric vehicles are starting to make a serious dent in oil use.

Last year, EVs displaced roughly 1.5 million barrels per day, according to a new analysis from BloombergNEF. That is more than double the share EVs displaced in 2015. The majority of the displacement is coming from an unlikely source.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Sponsored Content

Foursquare data story: leveraging location data for site selection

We take a closer look at points of interest and foot traffic patterns to demonstrate how location data can be leveraged to inform better site selecti­on strategies.

Imagine: You’re the leader of a real estate team at a restaurant brand looking to open a new location in Manhattan. You have two options you’re evaluating: one site in SoHo, and another site in the Flatiron neighborhood. Which do you choose?

Keep Reading Show less
Enterprise

The limits of AI and automation for digital accessibility

AI and automated software that promises to make the web more accessible abounds, but people with disabilities and those who regularly test for digital accessibility problems say it can only go so far.

The everyday obstacles blocking people with disabilities from a satisfying digital experience are immense.

Image: alexsl/Getty Images

“It’s a lot to listen to a robot all day long,” said Tina Pinedo, communications director at Disability Rights Oregon, a group that works to promote and defend the rights of people with disabilities.

But listening to a machine is exactly what many people with visual impairments do while using screen reading tools to accomplish everyday online tasks such as paying bills or ordering groceries from an ecommerce site.

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.

Fintech

The crypto crash's violence shocked Circle's CEO

Jeremy Allaire remains upbeat about stablecoins despite the UST wipeout, he told Protocol in an interview.

Allaire said what really caught him by surprise was “how fast the death spiral happened and how violent of a value destruction it was.”

Photo: Heidi Gutman/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images

Circle CEO Jeremy Allaire said he saw the UST meltdown coming about six months ago, long before the stablecoin crash rocked the crypto world.

“This was a house of cards,” he told Protocol. “It was very clear that it was unsustainable and that there would be a very high risk of a death spiral.”

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

A DTC baby formula startup is caught in the center of a supply chain crisis

After weeks of “unprecedented growth,” Bobbie co-founder Laura Modi made a hard decision: to not accept any more new customers.

Parents unable to track down formula in stores have been turning to Facebook groups, homemade formula recipes and Bobbie, a 4-year-old subscription baby formula company.

Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

The ongoing baby formula shortage has taken a toll on parents throughout the U.S. Laura Modi, co-founder of formula startup Bobbie, said she’s been “wearing the hat of a mom way more than that of a CEO” in recent weeks.

“It's scary to be a parent right now, with the uncertainty of knowing you can’t find your formula,” Modi told Protocol.

Keep Reading Show less
Nat Rubio-Licht

Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.

Latest Stories
Bulletins