Saturday, March 13, 2010

Chinese officials talk out of their hat

On Friday this week Xinhua published a story in which it quoted an official as saying the Internet in China was "open". Li Yizhong, minister of industry and information technology, said that China's Internet environment was "open and administered in line with the country's laws". Seemingly Mr Li has little comprehension of the English language, or maybe even his own. An open Internet is one where access to websites such as Facebook would be unimpeded, where Google Docs could be opened without hindrance and a video on YouTube could be viewed quite easily. But this is not the case. 

He says that sites should be in-line with the country's laws, but it is difficult to grasp how Wikipedia is contravening the Chinese legal system resulting in all its images being blocked in recent months. Though it returned after few weeks, even the innocuous International Movie Data Base was blocked for a time. And Google Health, along with many other Google services, have been intermittently scuppered by the Great Firewall. So in a word Mr Li seems to be talking out his proverbial.

Of course Mr Li isn't the only one. In January China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi also insisted the Internet was "open and active" in China. His comments were apparently made during a meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, according to a spokesman from China's Foreign Ministry [Xinhua].

China's officials particularly point to "online information which incites subversion of state power, violence and terrorism or includes pornographic content". Such material, they say, is "explicitly prohibited in the laws and regulations". How the IMDB, Wikipedia, and Spreadsheets fit in with this is unclear. In fact any Web 2.0 product or wiki could be used for the things cited. A blog could be a terror manual or include pornography or might be a political rant. It might be, as many are, a simple online diary. Information on Wikipedia could be utilized for nefarious activities, but most just access the online encyclopaedia to gain simple knowledge. While Flickr, Picasa web and other online photo resources could, and sometimes are, used to display lude content, most pictures are simply holiday snaps and are posted with little motivation to shock. 

But because of the possibilities that Web 2.0 offer, down comes the CCP sledgehammer. "China has full justification to deal with these illegal and harmful online contents," [sic] a spokesperson is quoted as saying. "It has nothing to do with the claims of restrictions on Internet freedom".

OK, so what about the real pornography sites. Are they blocked. Bizarrely enough many are not. was still accessible at the time of writing this as was Barely Legal. It is also interesting to note there are many Playboy stores dotted around the capital Beijing, as well as other cities across China. Even sex shops are common. And yet pornography is the number one reason cited for the all pervasive Internet controls. So, quite who they are trying to fool with this propaganda and sometimes outright lies is beyond anyone's guess. 

In another recent article Xinhua claims that the Internet has become a platform for Chinese people to vent their social and political opinions. To some extent it has. But as soon as such debates take place they are often swiftly shut down, something it fails to mention. By the end of 2009, the number of Chinese Internet users reached 384 million, or 28.9% of the total population, according to the China Internet Network Information Center [CNNIC]. 

Anonymous spokesmen often repeat the same old rhetoric that "Chinese netizens' right to express opinions within the law is well protected, and their opinions are given full consideration by the government in policy making processes". But this does not ring true when so many bloggers are jailed, often for years on end. Liu Xiaobo was detained and eventually jailed for "subversion" after he called for greater human rights and freedom through his Charter 08 campaign. Those calling for justice following the milk scandal and for victims of the Sichuan earthquake have also found themselves on the wrong side of the law.

The spate of articles in Xinhua and in other Chinese media talking up the country's Internet comes on the back of criticism from Google and the US government over alleged cyberattacks and increased censorship. Google said in January it had been the subject of such attacks and that some 30 other companies had also been hacked. The company said it was no longer willing to censor its search results and that this decision may force it to shut its doors in China. Secret talks have been conducted been Google and the Chinese authorities but little concrete information has emerged as to where the negotiations are heading.

This week Li Yizhong said Google was free to stay or leave China, but also said there would be "severe consequences" if it failed to censor its search results. This has increased speculation that talks have failed and that Google may well leave China. Google CEO Eric Schmidt said this week that "something will happen soon" but nothing has yet been confirmed by either side. Chinese journalists outside Google's Beijing offices on Friday said they had heard the company was planning to close its doors, but this was denied by the company in a statement published in the China Daily on Thursday [NYT].

Google's China businesses "are still at normal," and rumours that the company had ordered its Chinese advertising agencies to cease work were not true, the spokeswoman, Marsha Wang, told the newspaper. The issue of advertising is particularly interesting. On one blog published this week, it has been suggested that Google's decision might be something to do with Adwords, through which it makes much of its money. According to the article Google might be experiencing click fraud on a massive scale. There was, the author suggests a campaign in China which has seen clicks on advertisements despite people staying on a particular site for less than 0.0 seconds. Google earns money from an advertiser every time someone clicks an Adwords link. If the report is to be believed then Google could potentially lose millions of dollars should it be made public, since it might be forced to reimburse advertisers. In addition, revealling that it was suffering click fraud on a massive scale in China might undermine confidence in other markets. Recent CNNIC certificate approvals which might allow the Chinese government to pry into secure browsing sessions has added to concerns of companies and individuals operating in China. 

The Internet might well be "open" in China, but in a different way than one might think. It is open to attacks from hackers, frauders and government snoopers.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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