Internet Censorship Intensifies as China Attempts to Curb Online Vulgarity, Political Dissent

By Jason Simpkins
Associate Editor
Money Morning

With the onset of 2009, Beijing is cracking down on web portals and search engines that publish material deemed to be too vulgar or subversive for the nation's 300 million-plus Internet users. Chinese authorities have reportedly implemented new software that lets them more easily track and counter threats, and have issued stern warnings to industry leaders such as Inc. (ADR: BIDU) and Google Inc. (GOOG).

The government earlier this week cited 19 Web sites - including Baidu, Google, Sohu, Sina, and Tianya - as purveyors of vulgar content that is morally or politically destructive.

Some results produced by search engines had "large amounts of pornographic links [and] after notification from the complaint center, the site did not take effective countermeasures," the State Council Information Office said in a statement.

"Some Web sites have exploited loopholes in laws and regulations," said Cai Minzhao, deputy chief of the Information Office. "They have used all kinds of ways to distribute content that is low-class, crude, and even vulgar, gravely damaging mores on the Internet."

Cai made clear the "gravity and threat of vulgar current infesting the Internet," and reminded Web sites that they are liable to face "stern punishment."

While some of the companies reprimanded agree that it is their responsibility to self-censor, others were caught off guard by Beijing's sudden crackdown.

"We find this extremely strange and are still figuring out what exactly happened," a manager at Inc. (SOHU) told the Financial Times.

Cui Jin, a Google public relations officer in Beijing told Reuters that she had no comment on the citations, but added that the company abided by regulations.

"If [users] find content that is contrary to Chinese law, they can report it to Google. And if we find it's truly illegal, we'll deal with it according to the law," said Cui.

If companies are confused, some analysts suggest it may be because Beijing is hiding its true motives for the sudden effort. While the government singled out "vulgar" and "crude" material not suitable for younger audiences, the real goal may be to clamp down political dissent in what has the potential to be a bumpy year.

"I'd guess that this is in response to all the sensitive dates in 2009. They want to tighten up," Wang Junxiu, a Chinese pioneer of blogging platforms and a critic of censorship, told Reuters. "This is about more than pornography. We've had crackdowns on pornography since the start and they've never worked, so there must be more than that... It's a warning."

This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the infamous Tiananmen Square protest of 1989.

Unemployment, driven by the global financial crisis, is set to reach its annual growth target of 8% - a level many economists believe will contribute to social unrest.

"Unemployment among university graduates and migrant workers, caused by the global economic downturn and the shrinking of export industries will put much stress on Chinese society in 2009, even social risks," Han Kang, vice-president of the National School of Administration in Beijing, told Xinhua.  

"The 4-trillion-yuan stimulus plan, intended to boost the economy and ensure the 8% growth rate, may not create as many steady jobs as expected," he added.

Whatever the reason, Beijing has been tightening the reigns on news organizations for infractions such as referring to Taiwan as a country, since the close of the Olympic Games.

In its bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing liberalized its stance on Internet censorship. The government made even more concessions when journalists covering the Games openly criticized regulations they considered restrictive and overbearing. However, the Web sites of prominent Western news outlets such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and Voice of America, which were accessible during the games, have since been re-blocked. 

Beijing TRS Information Technology, China's leading provider of search technology and text mining solutions told the Financial Times that it is working closely with the government to better "manage" public opinion.

"On high-end applications, Chinese police now basically use TRS technology," He Zhaohui, marketing manager at TRS told the FT. "We did such systems for eight police stations in Shanghai. The work formerly done by 10 Internet police officers can now be done by one."

Before implementing the new practices, government officials were simply typing keywords or phrases into search engines and probing the results, He said. Now with TRS' advanced text-mining technology, authorities are able to anticipate and monitor threats rather than expunge unacceptable content after its publication.

"For example, some Internet propaganda departments supervise forums of university students - students tend to have more extreme opinions," He said.

Still, others believe Beijing is fighting an uphill, if not futile, battle in trying to keep its citizens in the dark.

"The free flow of information in China now is huge," said Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch told Daily Tech. "Jailing journalists, closing down Web sites and blocking foreign Web sites, even arresting people like [dissident writers] Hu Jia and Liu Xiaobo, it's illusory to think that's going to stop Chinese society from demanding more accountability, rights and more transparency."


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