Shutterstock admits to implementing a Chinese censoring tool that scrubs images with tags like ‘President XI,’ ‘Chairman Mao,’ and ‘dictator,’ and employees are furious.

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Sheng Li/Reuters

  • Photography site Shutterstock has put in place a censorship tool that filters out key words deemed controversial by the Chinese government, The Intercept revealed.
  • These banned search terms included things like, “President Xi,” “Chairman Mao,” “yellow umbrella,” “Chinese flag,” and “dictator.”
  • The censorship currently only applies to users with Chinese IP addresses.
  • Shutterstock has been in China since 2014 but the new censorship tool was just put in place last month.
  • Nearly 200 angry Shutterstock employees wrote a petition voicing their disapproval of the program, which they claim flies in the face of the company’s values.
  • Several days after the petition was filed, the company’s founder and CEO wrote a letter where he admitted to the censoring and said the tool was necessary in order to abide by Chinese laws and serve a potential market of 1.3 billion people.
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Shutterstock, one of the largest providers of stock images on the internet, has reportedly put in place a controversial new filtering tool that prevents users with a Chinese IP address from searching for images with terms deemed controversial by the Chinese government.

The creation of this Chinese blacklist, first revealed by Sam Biddle of the The Intercept this week, has enraged Shutterstock employees who argue the company’s decision to abide by the Chinese government’s censorship apparatus flies in the face of the company’s values. The revelation comes on the heels of mounting controversies from other multinational corporations like Google, the NBA and Activision Blizzard, which have been forced to make tough compromises to do business in mainland China.

Shutterstock filter tool eliminates search results of ‘President Xi,’ ‘Chairman Mao’, ‘yellow umbrella’, and other terms deemed controversial by the Chinese government.

In an email sent to Insider, a Shutterstock spokesperson confirmed the “adjustments to [its] search functionality]” went into effect in October. Chinese users searching for images under the terms, “President Xi,” “Chairman Mao,” “yellow umbrella” “Chinese flag,” and “dictator,” won’t find anything. The censorship also applies to variations of these searches like, “umbrella movement.”

The blacklist of controversial terms appears only to affect IP address in mainland China. Insider searched for each of the above terms from a New York City IP address and found images for each entry.

Shutterstock in China no longer returns images tagged with the term

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Shutterstock in China no longer returns images tagged with the term “yellow umbrella,” which is a reference to the 2014 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
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Reuters/Damir Sagolj

When asked how far Shutterstock’s connection with Chinese government censors goes, the spokesperson said, “The extent of our involvement with the Chinese Government is to comply with the local law.”

Shutterstock has maintained a presence in China since 2014 but the blacklist of terms is a new development. In an act of defiance, more than 180 Shutterstock employees reportedly signed on to a petition voicing their stark disapproval of the company’s decision to aid the Chinese government’s censorship apparatus.

“We believe that any censorship would set a harmful precedent and have deleterious effects on our company, China and the world. By complying, we are enabling injustices, including the discrimination of the people of Hong Kong, the suppression of Chinese political dissent, and undermining the sovereignty of Taiwanese people,” the petition read.

The petition went on to praise the company for its previous stances on topics like net neutrality, immigration, and anti-Semitism but said this issue was different because it threatens to throw a wrench in one of the companies largest new customer bases. By appeasing Chinese censors, the petitioners argued, “we would send the message that our commitment to our values is secondary to our commitment to our bottom line.”

Shutterstock founder and CEO confirm censorship and claim it’s in line with the company’s values.

Not long after Shutterstock employees sent their petition to company officials, they received a written response from Jon Oringer, the company’s founder and CEO, confirming its involvement in Chinse censorship.

“The Chinese government has effectively mandated that – if we want to maintain a level of business in China – we must abide by local laws governing the distribution of certain content in mainland China. Based on available information, we have determined that certain search terms will not return image or footage results to customers in that region.”

In his letter, Oringer used the term “filter,” rather than “censor” to refer to the company’s practices.

Oringer wrote that he welcomed an internal debate amongst employees and said that the decision to expand its site to a Chinese market was made after, “a careful evaluation of all factors in order to provide maximum value.” Shutterstock admitted that the company was faced with a choice: commit to no censorship and leave the Chinese market, or stay and provide stock images to a potential market of 1.3 billion people. They’re choosing the latter.

“We ultimately believe, consistent with our brand promise, it is more valuable for storytellers to have access to our collection to creatively and impactfully tell their story,” Oringer wrote.

This justification didn’t sit well with one of the Shutterstock employees speaking to The Intercept.

“Every day we come into work, we are making the world a worse place. And for what? To be able to sell photos of sliced fruit on white backgrounds in China,” they said.

US companies forced to choose between US and China

News of the Shutterstock keyword blacklist during a time of uncertainty for American companies attempting to strike some middle ground between maintaining American and European values of free information and appeasing Chinese government laws. Google was forced to ax its attempts at creating a Chinese search engine last year after employees objected to provisions that would have required the company to censor content. More recently, the NBA and major video game publisher Activision Blizzard have come under fire for their handling of employees who have spoken out in support of pro-democratic protests in Hong Kong.

Shutterstock referred to Oringer’s letter when asked by Insider whether or not employees backlash to censorship had made it reconsider its business dealings in China.