On September 25, 2005, the Peoples Republic of China announced a revision and update of its 2000 guidelines for banned Internet material, notably expanding the domain of monitored content to include cell phone text messages, e-mail lists, blogs, and chat rooms. Another difference, explains Jim Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, is that pre-September 25 laws tended to be “focused more on news sites.”1 The type of banned content includes “inciting ‘illegal’ assemblies, marches and demonstrations” and “activities on behalf of ‘illegal’ civil groups.” The other nine restrictions, largely unchanged from the 2000 guidelines, include “bans on rumors, pornography and defamatory statements.”
Since 1995, the year China began allowing commercial connections to the Internet, a number of mandatory and voluntary restrictions have been issued, including a 2002 requirement that text messaging providers “install filtering equipment to monitor and delete messages deemed offensive,”4 The Internet Police, also called “Big Mamas5,” are the estimated 40,000 technical experts monitoring Internet cafes and filtering code in sites, emails, bulletin boards, blogs, and chat rooms. According to one Congressional Committee, China has at least six agencies and one ministry devoted to monitoring public information6.
One reason China’s government keeps control over the Internet is to maintain order and prevent political uprisings. Pointing to the 74,000 major protests on a variety of issues that occurred nationwide in 2004, the PRC asserts a real need to limit subversive material that endangers security—including cell phone text messages. Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at University of California, Berkeley, says “cell phones were successfully used to organize anti-Japanese protests in April…the use of technology served as a wake-up call to its potential threat to government control.”7
China has refined its technological methods for controlling the Internet allow blocking only parts of sites instead of entire pages; if the website is domestic, they can issue a warning or close it down, a practice that is common during “sensitive periods” of the year8, such as during elections or visits from foreign officials. One Harvard Law School student found that China regularly denies local users access to 19,000 sites, representing the most extensive Internet censorship in the world.9
Enforcement of laws is swift and strict; 3000 of China’s 45,000 Internet cafes were shut down between 2002 and 2003. At that time one-fifth of Chinese users logged on from such cafes.10 In 2002 Liu Di, known online as “Stainless Steel Mouse,” was confined for a year for dissident postings, and web journalist Shi Tao was sentenced to 10 years for demanding remembrance of Tiananmen Square.11 As of May 2004, Reporters Without Borders counted 61 “cyber-dissidents” in jail in China.
Critics say that China’s limits on publicly-available information repress individual freedoms and hinder academic research. However, both President Hu Jintao and former President Jiang Zemin have affirmed their support of the Internet as a popular medium12, Zemin called it an “engine for development.” 13 Regarding science and censorship, Professor Shoucheng Zhang of Stanford’s physics department said, “you can clearly have both” in a 2002 interview with Business Week. He remarks that most academic archives are “accessible by anyone” online, even when a university’s website is blocked, and projects that some Chinese scientific schools could match MIT and Stanford in 50 years.14
Nicolas Becquelin, a Hong Kong-based research director for the organization Human Rights in China, says that since such strict enforcement has instilled self-censorship in Internet users, “The Chinese Government has already won. They basically censor the Internet.” Interestingly, quite a few major American companies are involved in the process as well. Google and Yahoo have agreed to restrict results for searches on “democracy,” “Taiwan,” and “human rights,” and MSN and AOL have launched China-based portals—decisions Eric Harwit, an expert on China’s Internet at the University of Hawaii, says are “to please the Chinese government” to “get favorable treatment in the future.” With an estimated 100 million Internet users, China constitutes the second largest online market in the world.
However, Internet censorship is often described as a cat and mouse game: as soon as one site is blocked another pops up, prompting President Clinton in 2000 to describe China’s efforts as “trying to nail Jello to the wall.” Savvy users constantly find new ways to bypass the “Great Firewall of China,” by encrypting their email, requesting usage of foreign servers, exchanging information on peer-to-peer networks, and launching programs like “adopt-a-blogger.”15
Other countries notable for attempting to restrict Internet content are Iran and Saudi Arabia, where the government owns all servers or requires private companies to filter out anti-Islamic and pornographic material. In 1996, the US Congress passed the Communications Decency Act. imposing content restrictions on the Internet, such as restriction on posting “indecent” or “patently offensive” materials web pages, newsgroups, chat rooms, or online discussion lists. In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the act as unconstitutional.
At the same time, the US is criticized for monopolizing ownership of the world’s web address system and thereby maintaining “the theoretical power to cut [many governments] off from the Internet system by blocking the country suffix.” The US refused an EU proposal to hand ownership over to an international body most recently on September 30.16 Australia’s 1999 Broadcasting Services Amendment bans pornography and France’s 1999 case LICRA and UEJF vs. Yahoo! Inc. and Yahoo France prohibits revisionist and Nazi-related material. But Charles Li of the Law Faculty of the University of Ottawa argues that unlike Australia’s and France’s specific limits, “China’s emphasis is to control the political, economic, social and cultural information, as well as any ‘unhappy Information’, which constitutes a broad and sometimes unpredictable category of content.”17
The United States is one of many governments and international bodies to consider the PRC’s control of the Internet excessive. The BBC and France’s Le Monde18 have covered the issue extensively and with disapproval, while Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and Amnesty International all denounce the PRC’s practice.
While China’s regulations may fuel fears that it remains a repressive regime, Internet usage and access have increased steadily, and PRC leaders have repeatedly expressed support for the medium. Internet forums are beginning to open up in comparison to traditional press mediums. Stories of social injustice were discovered and spread over the Internet and, on the surface, the government was thankful for these leads. The Internet has led to greater freedom of speech for Chinese citizens, compared to 15 years ago. China never claims to be a democratic country and so it is resentful of the West telling it what is “right and wrong.” It is a long and painful process to change and hopefully the Internet will allow China to move in the direction of openness, rather than repression.
1The fear of the Internet: Online rules seek to control protests in China,” Anick Jesdanun, Associated Press, Oct. 3, 2005, 11:53PM (http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/business/3380884)
2“International Report,” Information Today, Feb2003, Vol. 20 Issue 2, p26.
3“Public Pledge of Self-Regulation and Professional Ethics for China Internet Industry” (revised July 19, 2002). Text taken from the “Internet Society of China” website, available at http://www.isc.org.cn/
4“Microsoft Joins Hands With Yahoo!, Google To Censor China’s Web,” AFP Monday, June 13, 2005
5“China’s ‘Big Mamas’ in a Quandary,” Paul Mooney, YaleGlobal, April 12, 2004. (http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/display.article?id=3676)
6The Congressional Executive Committee lists the General Administration of Press and Publication , State Administration of Radio, Film and Television , State Council Information Office, Ministry of Public Security , China’s State Secrecy Bureau, and Customs authorities. Text available online at:http://www.cecc.gov/pages/virtualAcad/exp/expcensors.php
11“Experts Discuss China’s Censorship of Internet” By Peter Harmsen , AFP Sunday, September 11, 2005
12“Interview of the President by CCTV,” http://www.usconsulate.org.hk/uscn/pv98/0701f.htm(July 1, 1998)
13“Jiang Backs China’s Net Growth,” BBC News, August 21, 2000, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/890318.stm
14“Beijing Beckons its Scientific Exiles,” Bruce Einhorn, Business Week, October 2, 2002, http://www.businessweek.com/technology
15“Q&A: China’s New Internet Restrictions,” The New York Times, September 9, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/cfr/international/slot1_092905.html
16“US unmoved on control of web address system,” Financial Times, September 30, 2005.
17“Internet Content Control in China,” Charles Li, International Journal of Communications Law and Policy, Issue 8, Winter 2003/2004.
18« Les sites se plient à la censure imposée par Pekin » Le Monde, August 18, 2005. (http://www.lemonde.fr/web/article/0,1-0@2-3234,36-679854,0.html)