Chinese Rulers Threatened by Internet

Two new Internet bans may offer insight into the Chinese government's biggest fears.

One bars Internet news services from inciting "illegal" assemblies, marches and demonstrations; the other prohibits activities on behalf of "illegal" civil groups.

Together, they evince the communist regime's concerns over growing civil unrest — and particularly technology's role in fostering protests and strikes, says Julien Pain, who heads the Internet Freedom desk at Reporters Without Borders (search) in Paris.

While the government has been successful at blocking specific Web sites, Pain said, "what is more difficult to censor are usually the forums and chat rooms."

Add to that Web journals known as blogs, cell-phone text messaging and e-mail lists — all potential outlets for unchecked political commentary.

Last week's update to Internet regulations issued in 2000 is vague, but human rights activists and scholars on China say the new rules define online news services more broadly. The state-run China Daily even cites SMS text messages, a fast and efficient communications means available to anyone with a mobile phone, as falling under the new umbrella.

"The old regs were focused more on news sites," said Jim Lewis, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (search) in Washington, D.C. Since then, "people have used SMS to organize themselves, to pass news around, to rally crowds of protesters."

The two new speech prohibitions appear directed at discouraging protests and restricting dissidents. The other nine — including bans on rumors, pornography and defamatory statements online — were largely lifted from the 2000 regulations.

Organized demonstrations have been on the rise in China, especially the impoverished countryside, where anger has been growing over widespread graft, industrial pollution and seizures of land for development. The government says there were 74,000 major protests last year nationwide.

Although the Chinese government encourages Internet use for education and business, it keeps a tight watch, blocking material it deems subversive or pornographic. Online dissidents who post items critical of the government, or those expressing opinions in chat rooms, are regularly arrested and charged under vaguely worded state security laws.

Authorities also have clamped down on popular discussion forums, barring non-students from university chat rooms and banning anonymous postings.

But newer outlets like text messaging are even more difficult to control.

Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project (search) at the University of California, Berkeley, said cell phones were successfully used to organize anti-Japanese protests in April. Though protesters were supporting the government line, Xiao said, the use of technology served as a wake-up call to its potential threat to government control.

Bloggers, too, have given the government headaches.

Microsoft Corp. took some heat from human rights activists for agreeing to incorporate software in its Chinese blog service to automatically reject "democracy," "human rights" and other words deemed taboo by the government.

"Before the Net came around, Xinhua (China's official news agency) was pretty much where you got the news," said Jonathan Zittrain, an Internet legal scholar affiliated with Oxford and Harvard universities. "This does seem to me an acknowledgment that news can be made by people, and they are struggling with that."

Zittrain said the government might be trying to stem alternative news sites on the model of OhmyNews in South Korea, where thousands of citizens have shaken the traditional media and political establishments by submitting their own reporting.

Earlier this year, authorities ordered all Web sites, including private, noncommercial blogs, to register and identify the person in charge.

The new regulations require sites to post only news on current events and politics — without any commentary, normally a staple of blogs.

"These are really, really clear about no independent commentary," said Mickey Spiegel, a senior researcher on Asia at Human Rights Watch (search) in New York. "You cannot take a story, even an official story, and then run with it or comment on it in a way there was some space to do in the past. You really have to follow the party line."

Besides blogs, the no-comment provisions seems to be directed also at portals like Sina and Sohu as well as the discussion forums they host, Spiegel said.

Sites that produce or transmit news must obtain a license or register, and the regulations outline some staffing and asset requirements, making it difficult for smaller organizations and individual bloggers to qualify. Violations could result in fines or closure.

The new rules supplement the government's efforts to block foreign news sources through technical filters and to restrict online use by regulating and closing down cybercafes that serve as a primary access point for many Chinese users.

Liu Kang, director of the Chinese media program at Duke University, said the new regulations appear at first glance to be more of the same: Banning conduct already prohibited under China's constitution, which he described as "a joke in China because by and large they just ignore it."

But drafting the regulations could serve to inform the public and local authorities that the central government considers Internet control a priority, Liu said.

Complete enforcement is virtually impossible in a country with 100 million Internet users — second only to the United States — but the rules will let the government "cherry pick" the most troubling cases, said Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

They also could foster self-censorship, he said.

Nonetheless, he said, resourceful Internet users have typically managed to bypass controls in the past, forcing authorities to regularly "restate the rules in a way to get more compliance from people and close potential loopholes."