The Chinese government has issued new directives aimed at stifling any form of protest in online discussion forums. At the same time, the US company Verisign is giving China more responsibility in the worldwide management of the Internet. Is this ignorance or realpolitik? Reporters Without Borders sounds the alarm.
Reporters Without Borders today condemned the latest Chinese effort to gag the Internet by means of directives to portals that have discussion groups. As a result of the directives, many news groups have closed since 23 February and filtering of online messages has been stepped up. Verisign's decision to assign China a DNS root server is also worrying for the Web's future. "Discussion forums are used by millions of Chinese and, although closely monitored, they at least offered an outlet for popular discontent and criticism, but we fear these latest measures will just make Internet users censor themselves even more," Reporters Without Borders said. The organisation added that, after these latest directives, Verisign's decision to involve China in the management of global Internet traffic appeared extremely dangerous. The council of state's information bureau, which regulates online activity, explained the new directives to those in charge of China's main Internet portals: Sohu.com, Netease.com and Sina.com. Changes were quickly apparent in the forums on these portals, Reporters Without Borders has learned. Some discussion groups with a slightly political content or ones dealing with social issues were closed or redirected to entertainment forums (culture, people and so on). This was the case with the Sohu.com news group Xin Kong (Starry sky), which was closed and replaced by a forum not considered subversive. It also seems that debates of a political nature have virtually disappeared from forums as a result of stricter filtering criteria used by the Ban Zhu (discussion group moderators). At the same time, there has been a surge of posts by Internet users complaining about censoring of their messages, which they are unable to post online. Online discussion groups were massively used to voice dissenting views about events in the news in 2003. They were also the main source of information during the SARS crisis, as the authorities declared the subject off-limits for the traditional media. More recently, Internet users became impassioned about the "BMW affair," in which a well-to-do women deliberately ran over a peasant woman on 12 October 2003 and injured 12 other persons. The very light sentence imposed on the driver - presumably due to political intervention - spawned a major national protest movement. Tens of thousands of messages were posted in discussion forums decrying the unfairness of the sentence and judicial corruption. It appears to have been the scale of these protests that pushed the authorities into increasing their control of discussion forums. In May 2003, Reporters Without Borders issued a detailed report on the system used to monitor Internet forums in China. The full report, entitled "Living dangerously on the Net," is available at Verisign is the US company that manages DNS (domain name servers) such as .com ou .net throughout the world. By assigning China a DNS server, Verisign will turn it into one of the main hubs of Internet traffic. However, the Chinese authorities regularly use DNS hijacking, a technique that makes a site completely inaccessible by redirecting its domain name (such as rsf.org) to a false IP address, resulting in an error message such as "site unavailable." According to Dynamic Internet Technology (DIT), a US-based company that specialises in Internet filtering issues in China, Verisign's decision could make DNS hijacking easier and result in an increase in Internet censorship in China. For more information, go to www.internet.rsf.org