Microsoft Toes Party Line as China Steps Up Web Crackdown


2005-06-20
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A policeman inspects an Internet cafe in Beijing, June 17, 2002. Photo: AFP

HONG KONG—China is further tightening state controls over Internet use, as overseas rights groups criticize U.S. software giant Microsoft for agreeing to censor politically sensitive terms such as "democracy" and "human rights" from personal online diaries—known as blogs—written by Chinese citizens.

The Paris-based press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said it had confirmed that certain key words were now being censored from text posted by Chinese users to blogs hosted by Microsoft's MSN Spaces service.

"When a Chinese blogger attempts to post a message containing terms such as 'democracy,' 'Dalai Lama,' 'Falungong,' '4 June' [the date of the Tiananmen Square crackdown], 'China + corruption', or 'human rights,' a warning displays saying, 'This message contains a banned expression, please delete this expression'," RSF said in a statement on its Web site.

Here is a second American Internet giant giving way to the Chinese authorities and agreeing to self-censorship.

"Following Yahoo!, here is a second American Internet giant giving way to the Chinese authorities and agreeing to self-censorship. The lack of ethics on the part of these companies is extremely worrying," it said.

Like Yahoo! and Google before it, Microsoft justified its compliance with censorship requirements in terms of China's legal system.

"MSN abides by the laws, regulations, and norms of each country in which it operates," Brooke Richardson, MSN lead product manager told reporters last week.

Internet surveillance recruitment under way

China has announced further controls on the Internet this summer, with a nationwide recruitment drive aimed at channeling top technological talent into its Internet policing system, and a crackdown on unregistered Web sites.

"The evening newspapers in Beijing all carried this story," Beijing-based lawyer Gao Zhishen told RFA's Mandarin service.

"The reports said that a lot of top technology talent was being recruited, but it didn't emphasize the relationship with the police. The aims were to eliminate undesirable content, pornographic material, and other unhealthy things."

"But they are not going to mention the political side of this work," Gao added.

Recruits must be degree-holders specializing in computer science or related disciplines, and will undertake a rigorous testing and training program before qualifying as Internet security officers and taking up their stations in more than 800 Internet cafes and 3,000 service centers across the country, according to reports carried in several state-run Chinese newspapers.

Bloggers left with little room

Calls to the Internet monitoring department at Beijing's municipal public security bureau went unanswered several times during working hours.

Concerns are growing among China's community of Web users that a recent drive to enforce registration requirements first issued by the State Council in 2002 will squeeze all but the most tenacious off the Web, or force them to migrate to overseas sites inaccessible to Chinese Web users.

Article 8. All those who engage in non-business oriented Internet information services shall carry out filing procedures at the telecommunications administration authority at the level of the province, autonomous region or municipality directly under the central government or at the authority in charge of information industry under the State Council. When carrying out filing procedures, the following materials shall be submitted: (1) basic particulars concerning the sponsoring unit and the person responsible for the Web site; (2) address of the Web site and its services; (3) where services fall within the scope set forth in Article 5 hereof, the approval documents already obtained from the relevant competent authorities.

State Council Order No.292

As one well-known Shanghai blogger, Wang Jianshuo, wrote in an entry on the registration procedure: "I found it is almost impossible for me or anyone who like me to meet the requirements to file."

Wang, who is attempting to legally register his blog, said the requirements included removing any links to sites not approved by the Chinese government, which included most overseas sites and links to most of his friends' sites.

There was also a hefty 500 yuan (U.S.$60) fee, more than the annual cost of his domain name and Web hosting service put together.

Regulations posted on the Shanghai Communications Agency Web site. View full Web page. Image: www.shca.gov.cn

China has an estimated 600,000 blogs, with many other China bloggers using overseas servers such as Blogger and Typepad.

Subject matter varies widely, from personal diary entries, to specialized technological blogs, to general social and political discussions, which often contain unflattering news or comments about China.

Slipping through the cracks

State-run media say the crackdown is targeted at online pornography, fraud, and illegal business activities. But China-based commentators told RFA the real target of the campaign was freedom of expression.

"A lot of ordinary Chinese people believe that the Internet is a God-given loophole for them," lawyer Gao told RFA reporter Fang Yuan. "So of course it's horrifying from the point of view of the authorities."

Seal of official approval. Registered Web sites are required to display a government logo and their license number. Image: www.labournet.com.cn

He said the authorities were responding to a looming crisis of social unrest, in which the Internet was playing an increasing part in mobilizing peasants, workers, and petitioners in anti-government protests.

"In the past, the government ruled by unifying China by a sort of imperial edict. Today's government is taking every sort of measure they can, but they can't entirely control everything. Some things are slipping through the cracks," he said.

Crackdown likely to intensify

Guangxi-based Internet commentator Yu Zhangfa said the Chinese Communist Party was concerned about growing criticism aired on the Internet from within its own ranks, including a growing wave of resignations from the Party in protest at rampant official corruption.

"More and more officials from within the government are posting articles on the Internet in favor of freedom and democracy. So the Party leadership is going to get tougher and tougher on these sorts of activities," Yu told RFA.

"It all hangs on those words, undesirable content. But any content relating to democracy and freedom is undesirable to the Chinese Communist Party," he said.

Yu said the government had now consolidated its control over public access to the Internet, in cafes and service centers, and was likely to crack down next on private individuals going online in their own homes.

"It's like the frog in the boiling water. They will do it gradually, so people won't notice." he told RFA.

Meanwhile, authorities in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui were preparing to try dissident Zhang Lin behind closed doors on charges of endangering national security.

Among the charges laid against Zhang by the Bengbu city authorities were that he "used the Internet, overseas radio transmissions, and other such media to openly disseminate language that misrepresents and denigrates the national authorities and the socialist system, and which incites subversion of state power."

Zhang was to face trial at the Bengbu Intermediate People's Court on June 21.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Fang Yuan. RFA Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. English Web story by Luisetta Mudie.

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