New Regulations Encourage Self-Censorship

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New York, October 3, 2000 — The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is dismayed by the raft of Internet regulations announced this week by the Chinese government, which include new rules holding companies that do business online responsible for any material that party officials might consider “subversive.”

The rules, published yesterday by the state news agency, Xinhua, are part of a set of telecommunications regulations passed by China’s cabinet two weeks ago. They represent China’s most systematic effort to date to control the Internet.

“Internet content providers that conduct news, publishing, or electronic bulletin board services must record the information content they provide, and the times they publish it,” according to the text of the rules as reported by the Reuters news agency. Internet service providers, meanwhile, are now expected to “record the times users log on to the Internet, users’ account numbers, Internet addresses or domain names, and the phone numbers users dial in from.”

The regulations seem designed to shift the burden of policing the Internet from the government to Web site operators and Internet service providers, requiring them to keep detailed records of content and user identities for 60 days, and to turn these records over to police on demand.

“The Chinese government is determined to control news published on the Internet,” said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. “Officials have a limited ability to monitor the vast sea of information available online, so they’ve simply appointed the companies involved in e-commerce as their proxy policemen.”

Under the new regulations, “illegal content” includes news and information that is harmful to China’s reputation, disrupts social stability, or threatens the country’s efforts at reunification with Taiwan. The regulations also prohibit the posting of any material “advocating cults and superstition”–a move that would, among other things, curb the spread of news about the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement. Web site operators that fail to report sensitive content to the authorities risk closure, giving them a powerful incentive to censor such material.

Because traditional media are severely restricted in China, the Internet has been an important tool for circulating independent news and information.