Reporters Without Borders is concerned about a new crackdown on social-networking tools, especially microblogging services. Dozens of microblog accounts went down yesterday including those of blogger Yao Yuan and lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who was interviewed by the Associated Press. Four of the leading Chinese microblogging services, Netease, Sina, Tencent and Sohu, were yesterday displaying messages saying they were down for maintenance or had inexplicably reverted to an earlier “beta” testing phase.
“This latest censorship attempt shows that the Chinese authorities, who are obsessed with maintaining political stability, mistrust microblogging and its potential for spreading information and mobilising the public,” Reporters Without Borders said.
“Nonetheless, despite the massive resources that the regime deploys to control the Internet, it is impossible to keep track of all the flow of information on Twitter and its Chinese equivalents,” the press freedom organisation added. “Microblogging is also used by the government itself as well as by millions of Chinese who have nothing to do with dissidents.”
A form of short blog with a maximum of 140 characters, microblogs are have become very popular among Chinese Internet users for disseminating social messages and opinions because of their speed and ability to grab people’s attention. Access to Twitter is blocked by the Great Firewall of China but the site is still accessible for people who know how to use proxies and other censorship circumvention tools.
China’s microblogging services are nonetheless scrutinised by censorship filters which analyse both the posts and the shortened URLs that appear in them. For example, here is a link to a recent Reporters Without Borders press release: http://fr.rsf.org/chine-les-autorites-en-croisade-contre-l-07-05-2010,37411.html. And here is an example of a shortened version of the link obtained by a link shortener such as Bit.ly that microbloggers would use because of the need to keep the message to within 140 characters: http://bit.ly/a5F8it. These shortened links are also monitored by the censors in order to block access to undesirable sites.
Xiao Qiang, the head of the China Internet Project at the University of California, Berkeley, predicts that censorship will be reinforced during the coming months. He reports that the government has deployed major financial, human and technological resources to ensure its control over Web 2.0.
A report recently released by Human Rights in China (HRIC) shares these fears and argues that the Chinese government intends to turn the Internet into a tool for consolidating its authority and promoting Chinese “soft power” internationally.
The authorities have already embarked on an offensive against online anonymity, as Reporters Without Borders reported in early May (http://en.rsf.org/china-government-crusade-against-online-07-05-2010,37412.html), when Wang Chen, the deputy head of the Propaganda Department, said they were “exploring an identity authentication system” for users of online forums.
Internet users are currently required to register before posting comments on these sites but they can use a pseudonym to post. Wang said that, after preventing anonymous posting on major news portals and commercial websites, the aim now was to extend the system to online forums and chat websites.
HRIC has obtained the uncensored version of an internal report by Wang in which he explains the government’s strategy for preventing “harmful foreign information” from appearing “on our domestic Internet” and for “guiding” public opinion by “unifying thinking” and resisting the “hegemony of the western media.” The government’s solution is no less than to disconnect the Chinese Internet altogether from the global Internet (http://www.hrichina.org).
The Chinese parliament also adopted an amendment to the State Secrets Law on 29 April that forces Internet and telecommunications companies to cooperate closely with the authorities on matters relating to national security (http://en.rsf.org/china-amendment-enlists-ict-companies-in-29-04-2010,37238.html).