China's Internet face off
By Mike Chinoy
HONG KONG, China -- The Internet has presented the Chinese authorities with a dilemma.
While the government struggles to regulate the new technology, it must face the fact that Internet traffic cannot be strangled without jeopardizing the kind of openness needed to link China economically to the outside world.
Last week, Wu Jichuan, the Minister of Information Industry, launched the Internet Society of China, a supposed bridge between the people and the government, on Internet regulation issues.
Wu said China is one of the most rapidly growing Internet markets in the world, with 30 million people hooked up to the Web, 260,000 Chinese web sites, and 9 million computers.
Yet expanded Internet use is also a threat to China’s Communist government, which has traditionally utilized the media to serve the state.
Last year, authorities issued regulations requiring all Internet service providers to keep logs of all users, and what websites they visit, for 60 days. Content providers need to record all information posted on their sites.
Last month, authorities imposed a three-month ban on registering new Internet cafes, until they could carry out large-scale checks on their activities.
Police in at least one province installed so-called “information purifiers” to block access to pornography or politically unacceptable websites.
There are Internet police forces in about 20 provinces now, according to A. Lin Neumann, author of “The Great Firewall”, a recent report by the Committee to Protect Journalists. But Ted Dean, a Beijing-based consultant with BDA China, says such regulations are proving difficult to enforce.
“When the Falungong was banned one ISP was actually asked to produce the names of all their users. They said I can start printing now, and in 3-4 weeks I would be carting it to your offices. And the police said that doesn't make sense, we won't go through with that.”
Nonetheless, according to Neumann, at least seven people have been arrested for Internet-related “crimes” in China since 1998. But even these restrictions have failed to dim the popularity of the Internet. The number of users has been doubling every six months.
Chatrooms have become a place for lively debate and exchange of opinions, on subject ranging from sex to politics.
Even sites blocked by the authorities are accessible through the use of “proxy servers”, where forbidden information can be cached and accessed from outside the firewall.
Hong Kong-based Frank Lu, who runs a website that tracks human rights and dissident information from China, says tens of thousands of people log on from the mainland every month.
He is confident that Chinese leaders will never succeed in controlling the Internet. “These old leaders who want to control the Internet simply won’t be able to,” he said. “There aren’t enough people or resources to do so.”
Charles Zhang, founder of one of China’s most successful portals, Sohu.com, describes China as being on the brink of a digital revolution.
“It can be managed so that this revolution happens step by step”, Zhang says.
“But it’s going forward and no one can stop it. We know it. The government knows it. And we applaud it. We welcome this revolution.”
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