INTERNET ACCESS AND CONTROL IN CHINA: A Case Study

"The use of information technology is vital for the world economy and social development."
- Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, at a lecture on Technology, Beijing, February 27, 2002

"... Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print [...] or through any other media of his choice."
- Article 19, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Signed (but not ratified) by China: October 1998

Controls on access to information and on the free expression of ideas, especially via the internet, are a clear threat to vital and meaningful democracy, both here in the United States and abroad. With such control possible, and with consolidation of mass media increasing, it becomes all the more critical to preserve the democratic discourse made possible by a free internet. To understand how the flow of information can be regulated and restricted, the current state of affairs in China can be studied.

China joined the global internet in 1994 and it became commercialized in 1995. Since then, it has come to be among the fastest-growing internet markets in the world. Its total number of internet users doubles about every six months. According to the China Internet Network Information Centre (CINIC), the most recent estimate for the total number of users stands at about 95,000,000, (placing China second only to the United States in total number of internet users). With access to news from a variety of sources, internet users in China are able to discover, express, and exchange ideas and information in ways previously unknown there. This new access to information for the Chinese people has led authorities there to attempt to control and restrict the free flow of ideas. It is widely believed that China has in place the most extensive censorship of the internet of any country in the world. Dozens of laws and regulations have been put in place, internet cafes have been closed, websites, news portals and emails have been blocked and intercepted, and a filtering system has been implemented which disables searches for a list of prohibited keyword and terms.

In China all internet communication passes through routers controlled by the government. As a result, authorities "are able to block access to many sites and to filter content and delete individual links or web pages if considered 'dangerous' or 'subversive'."(1) There is no publicly available list on what search keywords and terms or websites are blocked. But a study done by the Harvard Law School called Empirical Analysis of Internet Filtering in China, which was conducted from May to November 2002 and updated on December 3, 2002, "found that over 50,000 of 204,000 web sites tested were inaccessible from at least one location in China although some were accessible from the US.(2). For example, it has been found that keywords such 'Taiwan, 'Tibet', 'democracy', 'dissident', 'Falun Gong' and 'human rights' as well as news sites and the sites of human rights groups.

Since the first major reports on internet usage in China, published by Amnesty International in November 2002, the number of internet users has expanded significantly, from about 65,000,000 to the current estimate of about 95,000,000. By virtue of the large number of users, Chinese authorities have been greatly challenged in their attempts to censor information and restrict internet usage. Increasingly, they are assigning responsibility for information filtering, usage monitoring and censorship to the companies that provide access such as ISPs and internet cafes.

In 2003, China's Ministry of Culture made the announcement that by 2005 all of China's internet cafes, estimated at over 100,000, must install standardized internet usage surveillance software. To limit this decentralization of control over internet usage "intends to issue licenses to allow up to 100 companies to manage the majority of Internet cafes." According to Liu Yuzhu, a Ministry of Culture official, China is "actively pushing an internet cafe technology management system requiring the whole nation to adopt the same standard and each province the same software." According to another Ministry of Culture official, Liu Qiang, this software would be able to store internet users' personal data along with "a record of all the web-pages visited and alert the authorities when unlawful content was viewed."

Also in 2003, the Ministry of Information Industry (MII) issued regulations intended to disable users' access to websites deemed to contain sensitive or threatening content to the 30 or so largest companies in China which manage internet addresses, or domain names. Under the guise of improving service standards for those companies' customers, the new rules put forth by the MII are intended to force those companies to implement "strict and effective mechanisms for cleaning bad and offensive domain names, which should be done once a day".(3)

The same year, Chinese authorities issued a new document called the "Internet News Information Service Self-Discipline Pledge"(4), which was adopted by several of China's news and information providers such as Xinhua, Sina, Sohu, Net Ease and Renmin. The pledge states that signatories will "obey government administration and public supervision voluntarily, to resist firmly the Internet transmission of harmful information such as obscenity, pornography and superstition, and to resist the substance of information [sic] that violates the fine cultural traditions and moral codes of the Chinese nation".(5)

Despite the shift toward assigning responsibility for monitoring, filtering and censorship to the companies who provide access to the internet, "at least 30,000 state security personnel are believed to be engaged in surveillance of websites, chat rooms and private e-mail messages"(6).

In response to the heavy censorship imposed by Chinese authorities, and in spite of active monitoring of internet usage, many Chinese internet users continue to attempt to circumvent the controls on information exchange that have been put in place. For example, during the SARS outbreak in 2003, SafeWeb, a company that enables users to surf the web anonymously, reported millions of hits from within China by users attempting to find alternate sources of information about the scale and gravity of that disease outbreak.

Chinese authorities have introduced scores of regulations to restrict freedom of expression over the Internet and have taken a variety of measures to control and monitor its use. Despite these measures, the internet and information technology are a critical component for continued economic growth in a country with over 20% of the world's population. As the importance of the internet grows, and as more people are added to the millions of existing internet users, so too will grow the demands of those seeking to freely access information and exchange ideas. It remains to be seen whether or not control and regulation of the internet will be able to keep up with those demands for freedom.

Sources:

(1) Amnesty International. (2002, November 26). People's Republic of China: State Control of the Internet in China.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Reuters (2003, November 21). China tightens rules on Internet Address Managers.

(3) Empirical Analysis of Internet Filtering in China, Jonathan Zittrain and Benjamin Edelman, Harvard Law School, December 2002.

(4) Xinhua/BBC. (2003, December 12) Chinese Internet Service Providers Pledge, "Self-Discipline"

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid, see Number 1
© 2008 David Yates