Users Take Aim at China Telecom Software

2006-10-17
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HONG KONG—Broadband customers across China have hit out at software provided by the country’s biggest Internet Service Provider (ISP), saying it limits their autonomy online.

They tell you that they are supplying you with this thing free of charge for your benefit, but in fact all it does is limit your access to the Internet.

Forums and chatrooms have been buzzing with annoyed comments from customers of industry behemoth China Telecom, which has the lion’s share of the broadband market nationwide, and its software ChinaNetClient.

Some have described ChinaNetClient as “rogue software,” complaining that it compromises their online security and freedom of choice.

“They tell you that they are supplying you with this thing free of charge for your benefit, but in fact all it does is limit your access to the Internet,” one disgruntled customer told RFA’s Cantonese service.

Conflict with other ISPs

A China Telecom employee who asked to remain anonymous confirmed the reports, acknowledging that customers had experienced problems.

“Nowadays all the ISPs, whether it be China Netcom, China TieTong, or China Telecom, require dialing software,” he told reporter Lee Kin-kwan, adding that the purpose of such software was to prevent multiple users from gaining access to the Internet when they were paying for only one connection.

“But if you go to use China TieTong and you have previously had ChinaNetClient software installed, you won’t be able to use it because there is a conflict between the two,” he said.

He said customers had the right to refuse to install ChinaNetClient, which was aimed at preventing customers from allowing multiple users to access the same broadband line at the same time.

He also said users experiencing problems with the software should take it up with China Telecom, and get the company to uninstall the software for them.

While a handful of ISPs have rolled out broadband connection services across China, none even approaches the market share currently held by China Telecom.

Privacy concerns

“I didn’t want it because it doesn’t show you the bandwidth and the time you’ve been online, and it’s a pain if I can’t control that so I don’t use it,” another customer said.

Customers had also complained at being forced to view advertising material for China Telecom and its related products and services, and other said the company’s anti-virus software contained certain “trojan horse” elements that compromised the security of customers’ PCs.

Sources told RFA’s Cantonese service that the ChinaNetClient software was developed by China Telecom’s Guangdong branch company. Not only did it force users to download software and advertisements but it skimmed all their browsing history records to use for data analysis, they said.

One prominent cyber-dissident and civil rights activist expressed concerns at the allegations of data collection. “The practice by the authorities of forcing people to install certain software is very harmful to their rights to privacy,” Sichuan-based Huang Qi said.

“Not only has their security been compromised, but their rights have been violated too. What customers want to browse online is for them to decide, and shouldn’t be open to interference through software and plug-in installations,” Huang said.

A hacker living in the northern province of Shaanxi who has been researching the ChinaNetClient software said China Telecom’s motive in forcing customers to download the software appeared to be the expansion of its business.

Software designed to 'plug holes'

But he said it had worked against the interests of its customers in preventing more than one computer from accessing the Web in a given household at the same time.

He said: “If you are a small start-up company then you only need to buy one broadband connection, and the content will be sufficient for your needs. So why would you buy another 20 lines from this company?”

Many Web sites within China exploit holes in the operating systems of users to install rogue software without the consent of users. This software frequently forces users to visit certain sites, and often leaves the host computer vulnerable to hackers, viruses and other online hazards.

A spokeswoman for China Telecom’s Guangdong branch, which developed the software in question, said ChinaNetClient was designed to facilitate customers’ access to the Internet and to plug some holes in the Windows operating system.

The spokeswoman also said the advertisements sent with the package were merely offered as friendly recommendations—customers didn’t have to look at them.

She said: “ChinaNetClient includes a number of features such as broadband access, menu, search and diagnostic functions. There are a number of holes in Microsoft’s operating system, which would render customers’ PCs vulnerable to virus attacks and interrupted connections. ChinaNetClient offers a fix for those issues.” But she declined to discuss issues of privacy raised by customers.

China Telecom was previously the name of China’s state-run national telephone operator, which until 2002 enjoyed a monopoly in the provision of fixed-line services across the country.

However, a restructuring in May 2002 created two regional companies, and the company operating in China’s southern provinces took the name China Telecom Ltd.

It is that company that was listed in Hong Kong and New York. The northern company, comprising what were formerly China Netcom and Jitong, became known as China Netcom.

The company is still effectively a regional monopoly in an area of low fixed-line penetration by the standards of economically developed countries.

Original reporting in Cantonese by Lee Kin-kwan. RFA Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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