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Monitoring the Web, Dragon-style

A new report suggests that Beijing is increasingly finding sophisticated ways to monitor the Web to remove content it considers sensitive. Rahul Sharma elaborates.

world Updated: Oct 21, 2007 03:32 IST
Rahul Sharma

Chinese President Hu Jintao might want to spread democracy in his country, but that may not necessarily get translated into freedom on the Internet for a while. Free speech, a key ingredient of the democratic process, doesn't seem to be on the cards for web users in China if one is to believe a new report that suggests that Beijing is increasingly finding sophisticated ways to monitor the Web to remove content it considers sensitive.

Hu promised to “expand people’s democracy and ensure that they are masters of the country” in his speech to the delegates to the latest congress of the Communist Party that opened in Beijing last week.

China needs to improve institutions of democracy, diversify its forms and expand its channels, and carry out democratic election, decision-making and administration and oversight in accordance with the law to guarantee the people’s rights to be informed, to participate, to be heard and to oversee, he was quoted as saying by the state-run Xinhua news agency.

Big promises, but for a country where the number of Internet users is about 162 million, or just over 12 per cent of the population, and some 1.3 million websites, free speech is perhaps further from reality than Beijing is from Timbuktu.

The government controls the print media, television and radio. Internet that allows people access to news and also an ability to express themselves through blogs — an activity pursued by 19 per cent of China's Internet users— has partly eroded that control. Privately owned news websites are not free and have to self-censor themselves to stay in business.

A few weeks ago the government sent out virtual cops — animated figures that pop up on a browser every half hour — to patrol the Web for illegal content, including political discussions and pornography. That prompted bloggers to wonder how quickly anti-cops programmes would become available.

I am not sure whether China has been able to block those aiming to hack those cops, but the report by Reporters Without Borders and the China Human Rights Defenders group talks of the secret workings of a censorship machine run by the cabinet, the party’s propaganda department and the police.

The government monitors the Internet by means of a skilful mix of filtering technologies, cyber police surveillance and propaganda, in all of which China invests massively, it said.

Draconian censorship hunts down anything to do with human rights, democracy and freedom of belief, the report said, that could possibly embarrass the government.

According to the report, which was written by a Chinese technician working for an Internet company who uses the pen name “Mr. Tao”, the Chinese authorities send orders of three kinds — bans issued before publication of a report, bans issued after publication of a report and propaganda instructions.

This is not to say that other countries do not monitor the Internet. The United States regularly mops the Web in search of terrorists, others spend time hunting for other kinds of crooks, including money-launderers. Some block access to sites that might carry inflammatory messages, and still more just keep that eye on you.

In China, however, Internet monitoring has a different meaning.