(January 31, 2000)
Last week, the Chinese newspaper Peoples Daily published
tough new Internet
regulations from the State Secrecy Bureau.
The new laws are aimed
at preventing computer users from transmitting state secrets on
the Internet. But the new laws will probably have little impact
on Net users in China, a country of over one billion people where
government officials already have great leeway in determining
what a state secret is and have no desire to stem the Nets
new Internet laws ban the release, discussion, or transfer of
state secret information on bulletin board systems,
chat rooms, or Internet news groups. E-mail users are banned from
sending or forwarding state secrets by e-mail. All Web sites are
required to undergo a security check.
The regulations ask
Chinas Internet service providers and related organizations
to teach their users about secrecy and include secrecy clauses
in their user contracts.
One of the more ominous
provisions in the new law demands that anyone using encryption
technology, which protects communication over the Internet from
prying eyes, register with the government. The government would
then keep track of electronic communications.
companies will have no secure way of sending corporate secrets
over the Internet. Foreign software companies such as Microsoft
will have to remove their own security technology and replace
it with Chinese-made products.
state secret? Nobody knows
The new regulations
will discourage Chinese users from sending via the Internet any
potentially sensitive material. But sensitive material
already includes anything that a security official decides is
Chinese journalist Gao Yu was jailed for leaking state secrets
in two magazine articles she wrote.
The 1988 State Secrets
Law categorizes a wide variety of information as classified. It
covers many of the obvious areas, such as national defense, diplomatic
affairs, and criminal investigations. But it also includes vaguely
worded sections as major policy decisions on state affairs
and other state secret matters that the state secrecy preservation
departments determine should be preserved.
Since the 1988 law
was passed, new rules have allowed several different government
agencies to decide what constitutes a state secret. Authorities
have considerable discretion, which they have used to send the
authors of seemingly harmless documents to long prison terms.
For example, Hong Kong
journalist Gao Yu was sentenced to six years
in prison in 1994 for leaking state secrets in
two magazine articles she wrote about a Communist Party conference.
According to court papers, she was charged with having obtained
classified documents about Chinas structural reforms, even
though the official who showed her the documents wrote top
secret on them after she had read them and the information
in those documents had been widely reported before she saw them.
Gao was released in February 1999, nine months before the end
of her sentence.
engineer Lin Hai was sentenced to two years in prison for
passing 30,000 e-mail messages to a pro-democracy magazine.
Others have been prosecuted
for using the Internet to promote dissent.
Last year, computer
engineer Lin Hai was sentenced to two years in prison inciting
the overthrow of state power after he provided 30,000 e-mail addresses
to V.I.P. Reference (Dacankao), a Chinese pro-democracy
e-mail publication produced in the United States. The staff of
VIP Reference tries to protect its subscribers by sending
its newsletter to hundreds of thousands of addresses in China,
so that anyone caught receiving it can claim he or she never requested
Booming Net growth
The government has
considerable authority to investigate state secrets on the Net.
But dont expect officials to read every e-mail message that
passes through China. They want to ensure that the Internet industry
in China continues growing at an exponential rate.
three seconds, someone in China uses the Internet for the
The number of Net users
in China has increased ninefold in the past 18 months, from 1.1
million in July 1998 to 8.9 million by December 1999. Every three
seconds, someone in China uses the Internet for the first time.
With such a rapidly
growing Net population, the new laws seem to be intended as a
warning and a reminder that anything remotely offensive to the
government should not appear on the Internet.
A Chinese official,
quoted anonymously in the By no means are the regulations
made to retard the flow of information via the Internet,
the official said. The purpose is to caution and prevent
Web sites and Internet users from leaking state secrets.
China will probably
not succeed in controlling a medium as decentralized and chaotic
as the Internet. Few encryption users seem to have heeded the
new requirement to register with the government. And Chinese officials
have not specified what, if any, punishments would be handed out
to those who fail to comply.