A Chinese Lesson: Internet Censorship

Internet censorship in the People’s Republic of China is conducted under a wide variety of laws and administrative regulations. There are no specific laws or regulations which the censorship follows. In accordance with these laws, more than sixty Internet regulations have been made by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) government, and censorship systems are vigorously implemented by provincial branches of state-owned ISPs, business companies, and organizations.

The escalation of the government’s effort to neutralize critical online opinion comes after a series of large anti-Japanese, anti-pollution, anti-corruption protests, and ethnic riots, many of which were organized or publicized using instant messaging services, chat rooms, and text messages. The size of the Internet police is rumored at more than 50,000. Critical comments appearing on Internet forums, blogs, and major portals such as Sohu and Sina usually are erased within minutes.

The apparatus of the PRC’s Internet repression is considered more extensive and more advanced than in any other country in the world. The regime not only blocks website content but also monitors the Internet access of individuals. Amnesty International notes that China “has the largest recorded number of imprisoned journalists and cyber-dissidents in the world.” The offences of which they are accused include communicating with groups abroad, opposing the persecution of the Falun Gong, signing online petitions, and calling for reform and an end to corruption.

Coinciding with the twentieth anniversary of the government suppression of the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, the government ordered internet portals, forums and discussion groups to shut down their servers for maintenance between 3 and 6 June. “In order to improve the internet content and provide a healthy environment for our netizens, we have designated 3 to 6 June as the national server maintenance day. This move is widely supported by the public” – Chinese censors, South China Morning Post. 

The Guardian reported that in excess of 300 Chinese sites had “posted increasingly blasé maintenance messages on the anniversary”. A number of websites, such as Fanfou and WordKu.com, made a veiled protest at state censorship by referring to the date sarcastically as “Chinese Internet Maintenance Day”. The day before the mass shut-down, Chinese users of Twitter, Hotmail and Flickr, among others, reported a widespread inability to access these services.

One controversial issue is whether foreign companies should supply equipment to the PRC government which may assist in the blocking of sites. Some argue that it is wrong for companies to profit from censorship including restrictions on freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Others argue that equipment being supplied- from companies such as the American based Cisco Systems Inc.- is standard Internet infrastructure equipment and that providing this sort of equipment actually aids the flow of information, and that the PRC is fully able to create its own infrastructure without Western help. By contrast, human rights advocates such as Human Rights Watch and media groups such as Reporters Without Borders argue that if companies stopped contributing to the authorities’ censorship efforts, the government could be forced to change.

A similar dilemma is faced by foreign content providers such as Yahoo!, AOL, and Skype who abide by PRC government wishes, including having internal content monitors, in order to be able to operate within mainland China. Also, in accordance with mainland Chinese laws, Microsoft began to censor the content of its blog service Windows Live Spaces, arguing that continuing to provide Internet services is more beneficial to the Chinese. Michael Anti, a Chinese journalist whose blog on Windows Live Spaces was removed by Microsoft, agreed that the Chinese are better off with Windows Live Spaces than without it.

The Chinese version of MySpace, launched in April 2007, has many censorship-related differences from other international versions of the service. Discussion forums on topics such as religion and politics are absent and a filtering system that prevents the posting of content about Taiwan independence, the Dalai Lama, Falun Gong, and other “inappropriate topics” has been added. Users are also given the ability to report the “misconduct” of other users for offenses including “endangering national security, leaking state secrets, subverting the government, undermining national unity, spreading rumors or disturbing the social order.” Additionally, reporters in the western media have also suggested that China’s internet censorship of foreign websites may also be a means of forcing mainland Chinese users to rely on China’s own e-commerce industry, thus self-insulating their economy from the dominance of international corporations.

23 July 2008: the family of Liu Shaokun was notified that he had been sentenced to one year re-education through labor for “inciting a disturbance”. A teacher in Sichuan province, he had taken photographs of collapsed schools and posted these photos online.

18 July 2008: Huang Qi was formally arrested on suspicion of illegally possessing state secrets. Huang had spoken with the foreign press and posted information on his website about the plight of parents who had lost children in collapsed schools.
The State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television issued a directive on 30 March 2009 to highlight 31 categories of content prohibited online, including violence, pornography and content which may “incite ethnic discrimination or undermine social stability”.

On several occasions, the government and Internet service providers of the PRC have blocked access to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia due to strict censorship laws enacted by the PRC.

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