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Controlling the Net

(January 31, 2000) Last week, the Chinese newspaper People’s 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 Net’s rapid growth.

Strict rules

China and the NetThe 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 China’s 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.

Theoretically, computer 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.

What’s a 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 sensitive.

Gao Yu


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 China’s 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.


Software 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 it.

Booming Net growth in China

The government has considerable authority to investigate state secrets on the Net. But don’t 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.

Every three seconds, someone in China uses the Internet for the first time.

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.

     
     
 

RELATED MATERIAL

  • China and the Net: DFN special report
  • China's Net secrecy laws: Text of the new laws aimed at preventing computer users from transmitting state secrets on the Internet. (January 31, 2000)
  • Improving Internet access in China: While China has often been criticized for using laws and technology to censor the Net, the lack of Internet access is a far more serious form of censorship. An analysis by DFN Executive Director Bobson Wong (December 2, 1999)
  • Trading for human rights: A new trade agreement will open up China’s Internet market but may actually worsen human rights. (November 17, 1999)

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