China to Send Police Officers Into Internet Companies to Curb 'Lawbreaking'

2015-08-05
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A man surfs the internet at a coffee shop in Beijing in a file photo.
A man surfs the internet at a coffee shop in Beijing in a file photo.
AFP

The ruling Chinese Communist Party looks set to further tighten its grip on the nation's 650 million netizens with the stationing of specialist police officers in major Internet companies.

"We will further deepen and expand our construction of police Internet security stations, setting them up in major websites and Internet enterprises," China's ministry of public security said in a statement on its website seen by RFA on Wednesday.

"[This will enable police to] respond immediately to any situations in which illegal behavior or crime is suspected, helping and directing websites to expand their capacity to manage online security," it said.

Hacker attacks, "violent terrorist information," fraud and data theft, pornography and gambling are mushrooming online, posing a serious threat to social stability and national security, according to the statement.

Police should "play a dominant role" in the management of online security, it said.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) meanwhile warned of provisions in a draft Cybersecurity Law that will put greater pressure on Internet companies to police the online behavior of their customers.

"The Chinese government should scrap provisions in the proposed Cybersecurity Law that require Internet companies to practice censorship, register users’ real names, localize data, and aid government surveillance," HRW wrote in a submission to China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC) on the draft law.

Tightening Beijing's grip

According to HRW China director Sophie Richardson, the law will further tighten Beijing's already fierce grip on the country's netizens.

"While the Chinese government is known for its obsession with Internet control, the draft law sends a clear and chilling message of intent to further control online expression," Richardson said.

"The law will effectively put China’s Internet companies, and hundreds of millions of Internet users, under greater state control," she said.

If passed, the law will force companies to censor content and restrict online anonymity, store user data and monitor what users are doing online, according to HRW.

Internet companies in China are already expected to censor messages, assist police in tracking down Internet users who post messages critical of the government, and require users to register with their real personal information, but enforcement of these rules has been uneven, the group said.

Enshrining their enforced cooperation in law will further reduce any leeway that Internet users have, and possibly close off existing loopholes, it said.

And another group has warned that proposed amendments to China's Criminal Law look set to legalize already current forms of human rights abuses in the country and further restrict the activities of lawyers, rights activists, netizens and journalists.

The draft amendments widen the definition of public order offenses like "gathering a crowd to disrupt public order" to include anyone who gives money or helps to organize a gathering, even if they don't themselves attend, which could include people who simply retweet information about a protest.

Legitimizing ethnic suppression

A draft Terrorism Law currently circulating also threatens to further criminalize speech or online comment as "terrorism," and amendments to the Criminal Law also reflect such a broadening of the definition, the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) group, which translates and collates reports from groups in China, said in a statement on its website.

"This amendment would further legitimize ethnic suppression of religious and cultural expression in these regions in the name of 'anti-terrorism,'" it said.

The amendments could also further freeze online expression, as they make it a criminal offense for Internet service providers not to comply with government censorship, CHRD said.

Internet service providers appear to be toeing the line already.

"Alibaba works with Chinese authorities to combat illegal and criminal activities on the Internet," the Internet giant said in a statement quoted by the TechCrunch news site. "It is our priority to maintain the reliability and security of our platforms to protect our customers."

The Criminal Law amendments also target China's embattled legal profession, which is already reeling amid a nationwide police operation to detain and question more than 200 lawyers, paralegals and rights activists, it said.

The amendments to the criminal law would further extend police powers and enable them to infringe further on freedom of expression, association and religion, it warned.

One amendment would allow lawyers' words during trials and court hearings to be interpreted as "insulting," "threatening," or "disruptive," CHRD said.

It includes a vaguely worded ban on "anything else that seriously disrupts court proceedings, where circumstances are serious."

In recent weeks, Chinese police have detained or interrogated at least 265 lawyers, law firm staff, and associated human right activists, beginning with a night-time raid on the offices of the Fengrui law firm in Beijing.

More than 20 people remain in detention, many of them at undisclosed locations, or have been placed under surveillance or house arrest, according to the Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group (CHRLCG).

If the amendments pass into law in the NPC, lawyers who defend their clients effectively in court could themselves be accused of a crime, CHRD said, pointing to another amendment banning anyone involved in a court case from disclosing information about the case, with a penalty of up to three years' imprisonment.

"This provision may increase abuses of clients’ due process rights that already occur with secret detentions and closed-door trials," CHRD said.

Both CHRD and HRW called on the NPC to scrap the proposals.

Reported by Luisetta Mudie, and by RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services.

CH. 1: MANDARIN | CANTONESE

CH. 2: VIETNAMESE | BURMESE | KOREAN

CH. 3: KHMER | LAO | UYGHUR

CH. 4: TIBETAN

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