The Year of the 'War on Rumor'

China moves to further tighten restrictions on Internet usage in 2012.

china-internet-police-305.gif Chinese policemen check an Internet cafe in Beijing, Feb. 22, 2012.

After a year which saw the authorities in China roll out an Internet real-name registration policy aimed at ending the ability of the country's online population to post anonymously, Chinese netizens have become increasingly hampered by government blocks and censorship.

But the increased censorship as part of Beijing's all-out war on "rumors" on China's wildly popular social media sparked by security fears in a year of political transition and scandal appears to have sharpened the online appetite for freedom of information.

Netizens have long railed at the "Great Firewall," a system of blocks, filters and human censorship that controls what Chinese can see online, but this year, they increasingly found that circumvention software used to tunnel under it was no longer working as they try to use the Internet for news they can't find elsewhere.

Shut out

Internet censorship expert Rebecca MacKinnon said Chinese netizens were now finding themselves shut out of a growing international movement for online freedom.

"2012 saw the emergence of a global movement for online freedom that governments and companies can no longer ignore," MacKinnon said in comments e-mailed to RFA.

"Internet users in the United States killed proposed copyright laws that would stifle their freedom. European netizens killed a related trade agreement. Indian netizens are fighting their own government's troubling censorship and surveillance measures," she said.

Earlier this month, Chinese Internet users who wanted to sign a Google campaign launched to pressure governments globally for a free and open Internet were unable to access the website link to the petition.

Internet commentator Hong Bo said Chinese Internet users were losing out on the opportunity to have a say in international affairs governing the Internet, not just on "sensitive" news at home.

"They have locked all of the best international Web companies outside of the Great Firewall," Hong said. "Basically this has turned the Chinese Internet into a local area network."

"Chinese Internet users have been unhappy about this for a long time," he said. "The point of this campaign by Google is to give Internet users and experts a voice, and to oppose any attempt to increase controls over the Internet by any government."

Russia and China reportedly called at a world conference on international telecommunications in Dubai, organized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a for greater control over the Internet by governments, citing security and crime prevention needs.

'Express freely'

As online activist @jinmaoquandieshuo wrote: "I hope everybody will sign [the Google petition], so that tomorrow, we will be able to access this webpage freely, so we can express ourselves freely, and not have our microblogs deleted."

Meanwhile, Internet technology expert Dong Xiaoxing said the Internet was a fundamentally open phenomenon.

"Anyone should have the right to use it without restriction," he said. "They should be able to access any of its content, and information posted by other people."

"In China, where they censor and block the Internet, this has created a sort of black hole effect, a domain where information flows from outside can't get in."

MacKinnon said that Chinese companies and the government were becoming increasingly active in global bodies like the United Nations, ensuring that their power and interests were protected.

"It is a travesty that Chinese netizens have largely been shielded from—and prevented from participating in—emerging global debates about who should be allowed to shape the Internet's future," she said.

The past year has shown little sign that this will change soon, however.

Renewed attack

China's official propaganda machine swung into action in April with a renewed attack on "rumor-mongering" online and a defense of real-name registration requirements for Internet users.

Social media services like Sina Weibo and QQ were awash at the time with speculation about political infighting at the heart of the ruling Chinese Communist Party in the wake of the ouster of former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai on March 15.

The Internet Society of China called on the country's Internet companies to stem the spread of online rumors.

"The spread of online rumors has become a public nuisance which seriously infringes people's interests, national security and social stability," the society said in an April 8 statement.

It called on Internet service providers to "resist online rumors" by imposing self-discipline, as well as upholding China's laws, without giving specific examples.

It also urged the companies to comply with government rules for real-name registration of China's 250 million microblog account holders, a controversial move requiring users to link a cell phone account to their microblog registration details.

Parliament backing

The country's top legislature this week began deliberating the real-name registration policy, the official Xinhua news agency said, adding that lawmakers called for the swift adoption of the measure which they said was in line with public aspirations.

The move is intended to better protect Internet users' privacy and provide a legal basis for safeguarding online information safety to ensure the healthy and orderly development of the Internet, it quoted a spokesman for the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress as saying.

A draft decision proposes requires Internet users to identify themselves to service providers, including Internet or telecommunications operators, it said.

The identity management policy enables people to "protect their lawful rights by providing real names while building an environment of free exchange under anonymity," Li Yuxiao, an expert on Internet management and law studies at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, said, Xinhua reported.

Coup rumors

Bo's ouster, and the flight of his former right-hand man and police chief Wang Lijun to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, fueled rumors of a political coup in Beijing, and prompted the authorities to disable the comments function of China's hugely popular microblogging platforms for a few days.

Chinese authorities also detained a number of netizens and online editors during the course of the year over retweeted material that was considered controversial or inaccurate by local authorities, who were themselves often the subject of the tweets.

And in a white paper issued on Dec. 18, the state-run China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), called for even more controls on online speech, while recognizing the power of social media to expose official corruption.

Lead researcher Chen Guanjin told Hong Kong media that many people in China didn't know how to use the Internet for social good.

"You have these people over here flaming those people over there, and you also have people who try to escalate things online, for no reason whatsoever," Chen said.

"The Internet is filled with irresponsible rumors, and I think that further legislation could be needed," he said.

Hangzhou-based freelance writer Zan Aizong said any further attempts to clamp down on "rumors" would be futile.

"Rumors are something that can never be stopped, no matter how technologically advanced we become," Zan said. "They will always be there."

He said the best cure for rumors was clear information, not legislation.

"The current Internet controls already restrict free speech," he said.

Reported by Xin Yu for RFA's Mandarin service and by Wen Yuqing for the Cantonese service. Translated and written in English with additional reporting by Luisetta Mudie.

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