New Controls on Public Wi-Fi

Some view the Chinese measures as part of Internet censorship.

2011-07-27
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An Internet cafe in Kunming, southwest China's Yunnan province, April 1, 2010.
AFP

Business owners and netizens in China have hit out at new rules issued by Beijing police requiring surveillance of people browsing online using a public wireless connection.

Businesses, including hotels and cafes, in central Beijing that offer Internet access to customers have been told by police in recent days that they must install surveillance software to track customers who use their Wi-Fi service.

An employee who answered the phone at a cafe in Beijing's Dongcheng district confirmed that it had received notification from officials in recent days, requiring the owner to install a software package to monitor Wi-Fi-using customers.

"We haven't installed it yet," the employee said, adding that businesses were being charged a fee for the installation.

"I don't know yet what the exact arrangements are," he said, confirming that businesses that did not comply would lose their license to operate.

"I don't know how this is going to pan out in reality," he said.

The proprietor of a cafe in Beijing's Jiuxianqiao district said he had been forced to stop offering wireless Internet access to customers for the time being, pending "repairs" to the service.

According to the official notice, which has apparently only been issued in Beijing's Dongcheng district so far, businesses will have to pay a fee of 20,000 yuan (U.S. $3,100) to install the software, which allows officials to check the identities of users and monitor their activity.

China has already implemented nationwide controls on cybercafes, upon which many less privileged people depend for Internet access, requiring users to swipe their national identity smart-card containing personal data before going online.

The controls also ban anyone under 18 years from using the cybercafes.

Money-making venture?

Sichuan-based Internet expert Pu Fei said he believes the new measures are a money-making partnership between the Beijing police and the company that makes the surveillance software.

"This software hasn't been widely adopted or promoted so far," Pu said. "It clearly operates ... by charging a hefty licensing fee, so I would guess that this is a partnership between the [software] company and the authorities in charge of maintaining Internet surveillance."

"They are coercing people into using this particular software," he added. "Government surveillance packages do not normally cost money."

Veteran blogger Mo Zhixu said the authorities will only further harm "social stability" if they impose further controls on freedom of expression.

"There needs to be a debate about the extent to which the government controls individual access to information," Mo said. "Because communications are a personal space, and our Constitution guarantees freedom of communication."

"If the government wants to get involved in [communications platforms] then it needs to be discussed."

A Beijing-based young man, who declined to be named, said he will continue to use wireless Internet services in public places, even if he knows that his online movements are being tracked.

"If they want to take my details, then let them take them," he said. "There's nothing I can do about it ... I'm not a technology expert. I don't really understand these things."

But he added: "I would be a bit more careful sometimes, but I don't have the ... energy to care about this too much."

"I don't think I am very [politically] sensitive, so it makes no difference to me."

Command center

Earlier this year, China set up a nationwide command center to oversee the country's 485 million netizens and to "manage information" on the Internet, prompting fears that online controls will get tighter still.

The State Internet Information Office, directly under the control of China's cabinet, or State Council, will "direct, coordinate, and supervise online content management," official media reported.

Beijing-based lawyer Chen Yongmiao said the Dongcheng Wi-Fi directive appears to be an expansion of existing Internet controls aimed at "preserving stability."

"This is an extension of the logic they used in so-called individual surveillance and in the surveillance of cybercafes in the past," Chen said.

"They don't want to leave a single blindspot ... in their surveillance that they can't reach," he said.

The most recent crackdown on dissent in China began following anonymous online calls for a "Jasmine" revolution, inspired by recent uprisings in the Middle East.

Rights groups say dozens of activists, lawyers, and cyber-dissidents have been detained, sent to labor camp, or sentenced to jail terms for subversion.

Figures from the China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC) show that microblogging is the fastest-growing form of Internet use in China.

Netizens using microblogging platforms like Twitter grew by more than 200 percent to 195 million from January to June, making up around 40 percent of China's online population.

Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service, and by Wen Jian for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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