June 28, 2005

There are more than 100 million net users in China, and Chinese is now the second-most common language on the web.

Suppression of information is central to China's internet policy, and Microsoft is guilty of collaborating with Beijing.

It is fashionable to appease China. Over the past few weeks we have had the unedifying spectacle of the Australian Government turning its back on a defecting Chinese diplomat, and last week we saw Microsoft agreeing to censor blogs on its new Chinese MSN Spaces network that contain words such as freedom and democracy.

Microsoft justifies its decision by saying that it "abides by the laws, regulations and norms of each country in which it operates". Microsoft once again demonstrates that morality takes a back seat to profitability.

It was easy to criticise China when it was the Cold War enemy, and when we didn't trade with it. Now China's economic might excuses all manner of toadying.

We may buy lots of cheap Chinese goods, China may buy shiploads of our coal and wheat, but the Middle Kingdom is still a repressive, militaristic totalitarian state that routinely kills and tortures its own citizens for small acts of dissent.

Free-speech advocacy group Reporters Sans Frontieres estimates that more than 60 "cyber dissidents" are behind bars in China, often for no greater crime than expressing views in internet chat rooms uncomplimentary to the Government.

China opened the country to the internet in 1995, but since President Jiang Zemin complained in 2001 about the volume of "pernicious information" filtering through to the Chinese population, China has embarked on an extensive program of technical and legislative measures designed to restrict access to large parts of the internet.

China employs more than 30,000 people to oversee the internet and impose bans on offending sites. But it is becoming more difficult. There are more than 100 million net users in China, and Chinese is now the second-most common language on the web.

Most Chinese internet users cannot afford their own computer. They gain access from work or from one of the hundreds of thousands of internet cafes. Most of these cafes have broadband access - there are now more than 14 million ADSL lines in China.

Last year China began an extensive program of shutting down unlicensed internet cafes. The Chinese news agency Xinhua has reported that 47,000 were closed in 2004.

Regulations have been promulgated prohibiting children younger than 18 from entering the cafes, which must be at least 200 metres from a school.

Cafe owners must block inappropriate websites and report illegal behaviour. In Shanghai, some internet cafes are monitored by closed-circuit TV to ensure the regulations are followed, and others employ staff to check what sites users are accessing.

China has ways of censoring what its people see on the internet. All internet traffic into China filters through just nine gateways, enabling the authorities to easily block or restrict access. On my last visit to China I could not even access The Age or The Sydney Morning Herald websites.

Google News pages are often shut down. Users are encouraged to use the bowdlerised Chinese version, which cannot access sites blocked by the Government. Google and other search engines do not function properly in China, as the Government routinely blocks sites dealing with subjects such as Tibet, sex, Taiwan, religion, the Falun Gong [group], drugs, and even mental health.

Harvard University's Ben Edelman, who has studied China's web censorship practices, believes that as many as 10 per cent of all websites are restricted in some way.

Now the Chinese Government, with Microsoft's complicity, has started real-time monitoring, which extends to email, blogs and chatrooms. All internet users must register with the police within 30 days of opening a web account. And in order to have the populace spy on itself, China last year established a site (www.net.china.com) where users can report inappropriate websites and usage.

Chinese websites must conform to more than 60 laws passed in the past 10 years dealing with internet content and usage.

Portals and internet service providers are legally responsible for any material accessed through them and must sign the Public Pledge on Self-Discipline for the China Internet Industry, which contains 31 articles appealing to "patriotism, observance of the law, fairness and trustworthiness".

The restrictions have been effective only in the short term and only because the technology exists to enable them.

Never has a regime so bent on secrecy had to face a technology so pervasive as the internet. But truth eventually wins out over attempts to suppress it.

Appeasing Beijing is not only morally reprehensible, it places those who do so on the wrong side of history.

Source http://www.theage.com.au/news/perspectives/china-weaves-a-web-of-repression/2005/06/27/1119724554444.html?oneclick=true