China has announced a clampdown on domestic computer crime starting this week, but activists say the new rules look more likely to limit political dissent.
China's Supreme People's Court and state prosecution service issued a set of regulations on Monday, in a move state-run media said is aimed at fighting hacking and other Internet crime.
"Those who knowingly purchase, sell or cover up illegally obtained data or network control will be subject to criminal penalties," according to a joint legal interpretation, which takes effect on Thursday.
Officials say illegal data transactions have been on the rise in recent months.
"Penalizing these violations helps sever the profit chain of hacking and other related crimes," the official Xinhua news agency reported this week.
Sichuan-based Internet expert Pu Fei, who works for activist Huang Qi's 64Tiananmen website, said the new rules will limit online freedom, however.
"The clarification of terms around hacking offenses and the delineation of online actions is totally unnecessary and won't solve anything," Pu said.
"It is mostly aimed at dissenting opinion online."
He said many of the definitions of hacking could also encompass the use of Web circumvention software by netizens seeking to break through the complex system of filters, blocks, and human censorship known collectively as the "Great Firewall," or GFW.
"Some of the anti-GFW software does things which could be construed as hacking under their definition," Pu said.
Social networking concerns
Chinese officials are increasingly concerned over the power of microblogging sites like Twitter and Sina Weibo to mold and drive public opinion.
An article carried by Xinhua on Tuesday called for an end to the "cancer" of online rumors, in the latest sign of official unease over the rising popularity of social networking sites.
"The Internet is an important carrier of social information, civilization, and progress. Rumors will harm the network and are a dangerous cancer," Xinhua said in a commentary published only in Chinese.
"To nurture a healthy Internet, we must eradicate the soil in which rumors grow," it said.
According to popular blogger Wen Yunchao, known online by his nickname Beifeng, recent moves by Internet giant Sina to close the accounts of some microbloggers accused of "rumor-mongering" could lead to far tighter controls over Twitter-like services in future.
"If they set up a real-name registration system, then they can move to ensure that anyone in public security databases isn't able to carry out their activities via social media," Wen said.
The same would not be true for the "50 cent party," paid freelancers who direct online discussions according to the line taken by the ruling Communist Party, he said.
"Of course the organizations that run the 50-centers would have their own special channels for arranging [microblogging] accounts," Wen said. "Those people would still be active."
He said that if a real-name system is adopted, it won't just be on the Sina platform. "It will be right across the board," he said.
China suspected of attacks
While China has repeatedly denied accusations of involvement in international cyberattacks, recent video footage showed software designed to launch cyberattacks on overseas institutions.
The video, which included shots of software including a drop-down menu of attack targets for selection, the former I.P. address of a U.S. university website, and a large button labeled "attack," was available for playback on the official station website for weeks after broadcast, but was later deleted.
Earlier this year, security firm McAfee said in a report titled "Operation Shady RAT" that hackers compromised computer security at more than 70 global organizations, including the U.N. and U.S. government bodies, sparking speculation that China was behind the attacks.
McAfee did not identify any country behind the hacking campaign, but its security experts said in February that hackers working from China had targeted the computers of oil and gas companies in the U.S., Greece, Taiwan, and Kazakhstan.
Chinese officials say that the country is just as much the target of online crime as anywhere else, however.
Xinhua reported on Tuesday that more than one million IP addresses in China were controlled from overseas in 2009, while 42,000 websites were distorted by hackers.
According to official figures, around 18 million Chinese computers are infected by the Conficker virus every month, or about 30 percent of computers infected globally.
According to Beijing's Ministry of Public Security, the number of viruses circulating on the Internet has risen by around 80 percent year-on-year over the past five years, while 80 percent of Internet-connected computers are vulnerable to hackers.
Reported by Bi Zimo for RFA's Cantonese service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.