HONG KONG—China looks set to go ahead with a large-scale shake-up of its Internet cafe industry in a move critics say is aimed at further tightening controls over its citizens online.
Officials at China's Ministry of Culture recently set out guidelines for people wishing to set up large chains of Internet cafes, paring back the thousands of privately run smaller operations.
“It’s hard to mount ‘clean-up’ operations when there are so many Internet cafes,” said the proprietor of an Internet cafe surnamed Chen in the eastern province of Anhui.
“There isn’t the time and energy to install monitoring software at every single one of them, and they can always delete it again anyway.”
“The point of this is to cut down on the number of small and medium-sized Internet cafes,” Chen said.
Officials say they want to encourage entrepreneurs to bid to run nationwide chains offering Internet access to the general public.
Minimum investment for such a chain is set at 50 million yuan (about U.S. $7 million), and the minimum number of nationwide outlets at 30.
The U.S.-based former editor of Dacankao online magazine, Li Hongkuan, also sees the move as another way of boosting control over the online activities of Chinese netizens.
“This is aimed at better management,” Li said.
“The chains will be run by a single company in each case, so if there is a problem with any of the cafes, all the others will be implicated as well.”
“What this means in effect is that the top-down network model of Chinese politics will be transposed onto the Internet cafe industry.”
According to proprietor Chen, software would be standard within the proposed larger chains, including monitoring software.
“This means that you wouldn’t be able to uninstall it either, because the police would be able to see what happened on every single computer in your stores,” he said.
“Another point is that there is probably a government-business connection going on here behind the scenes, which has a monopolistic quality,” he said.
Fury over domain rule
Also on the Web this week, bloggers and online activists lashed out at plans to require anyone wanting to register a .cn domain name Web site in China to provide his or her real name, contact details, and a photograph—which would be held on a database.
Blogger Zhou Shuguang, known online as “Zola,” said the new requirement means more investment for an individual wanting to start up his or her own Web site.
“It’s pretty inappropriate to treat someone who is applying to set up a Web site as if they were a criminal suspect. I don’t know which laws or regulations they have to back them up in doing so.”
Under regulations announced by Beijing’s Ministry of Information Industry in December, individuals wishing to register a domain name must provide proof of identity.
On Monday, the ministry further clarified the guidelines, saying a photograph of the applicant is also now a requirement.
“Back in 2005, all you had to do was give a contact telephone number,” Zhou said.
“It’s getting harder and harder to set up a Web site from within China, and now they have set another layer of restriction on the process.”
Zhou said the move could deter citizen journalists and bloggers wishing to report events directly online.
“There will be a greater risk attached to doing this now,” said Zhou, who has himself covered controversial news stories for his blog.
“It’s going to make it easier to oppress them and make the space for freedom of expression even smaller.”
News of unrest and clashes between citizens and the authorities is frequent in China, but it’s almost always censored by the ruling Communist Party’s powerful Central Propaganda Department.
Often, the news reaches a wider audience via blogs, forum posts, and social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and their Chinese equivalents, before being censored by the authorities soon after posting.
Beijing-based legal expert Xie Yanyi, who publicly opposed the Chinese government’s proposed Green Dam Web filtering software last year, said he doubts the legal basis for the tightened controls.
“I really don’t think that it’s necessary to require people’s personal details on file before allowing them to set up a Web site,” Xie said.
“If it was a commercial Web site that made money, then there would be some basis in government policy and in current legislation. I don’t think it has jurisdiction over individuals setting up Web sites,” he added.
Chinese netizens have slammed a new raft of proposed controls that will further concentrate control of the Internet in the hands of government-approved firms and agencies, saying they take away the right of ordinary citizens to make full use of the Internet.
They are also disgruntled at the increasing failure of Internet circumvention tools to get around the Chinese government’s sophisticated set of blocks and censorship filters, known collectively as the Great Firewall.
Original reporting in Mandarin by An Pei and Shi Shan. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.