Ownership Is Censorship In China

In the previous post The Greatest Internet Crime Trial in China, there was this comment at the end:

Do not let that mythical figure of 30,000 Internet censors lull you into thinking that they have everything under control.  It is a lot more difficult than you think.  In most cases, though, they are relying on self-policing -- a China-based BBS, forum or portal will be held responsible for what was allowed to appear; the censor will only show up days, weeks, or months later to retroactively hold the operators responsible so that this is an incentive to be 'vigilant' up front to avoid such problems.  Overseas websites will have to be blocked via the Great Internet Firewall upfront, because the locals simply have no capability of coping as such.

That much should have been obvious from the story of how the SMTH BBS (see previous post The Great Chinese BBS Crackdown).  If this were during the Cultural Revolution period, there would be a work group of propaganda department bureaucrats, military officers and worker representatives sent from the outside to take charge on the Tsinghua University campus.  Today, the BBS operator is simply told to implement a set of rules; if an individual sysop refuses, someone else will take his/her place or else the BBS goes out of operation.

In any case, I am going to summarize a document from the Guangdong Province Department of Telecommunications with respect to BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) (see link).  A BBS operator is required to observe the following five points:

  1. A BBS company must state clearly what it plans to offer (e.g. a culture-related bulletin board, a chatroom, IT news, etc) in its application for operation.  Upon approval, the BBS shall receive an ICP (Internet Connection Provider) number.  The BBS will be allowed to operate only in the approved areas but not beyond.
  2. A BBS should have the corresponding staff to manage its operations.  Each approved area should have at least one professional system operator who is responsible for operations (note: the person(s) must fill out the BBS operator registration form).  The system operator will be responsible for the contents of his/her area, using technical means as well as human evaluation to filter, select and monitor.  If there should be any content in a BBS area that is against the regulations, the related supervisory department will hold the BBS as well as the individual operator responsible.
  3. A BBS shall require all users to register up front with truthful and accurate information (including name, telephone number and ID number).  The registration form will be stored away safely and not to be disclosed without cause.  A registered user will then be allowed to access the BBS and its associated services.  If a registered user should be found to break the rules or provide false information, the BBS may suspend or terminate service to the user.
  4. (1) A BBS must prominently post its ICP (Internet Connection Service) permit number on its pages.  That should be linked to an image of the permit form or other details.
    (2) When a user accesses a particular area of a BBS, the first page should state the BBS service rules and regulations consistent with the legal requirements and restrictions, including the relevant articles in the <<National People's Congress Standing Committee's Resolutions Related To Maintaining Internet Security>> adopted on the December 28, 2000 at the Nineteenth Meeting of the Ninth National People's Congress Standing Committee.
  5. Information provided by a BBS user should be filtered by software as well as human inspection before the public can read it.  Information that has not been inspected should not be posted directly for the public on the Internet. 

This type of delegation of the regular daily censorship duties should not be surprising.  It also occurs in the United States and elsewhere.  For example, if someone starts distributing kiddie porn through AOL, MSN or Yahoo!, then the operator has the responsibility of suspending and terminating the user and/or reporting the facts to law enforcement.  The difference between China and the United States lies in the list of banned activities (see The List of Filtered Items).  China bans kiddie porn, it bans any hard pornography and it will also ban any discussion about overseas democracy movements and F*L*G.

A blogger inside China is required by law to register his/her website, providing full name, address, ID number and telephone number.  It does not mean that the 30,000 censors are constantly monitoring every blog minute-by-minute, but it may mean that the blogger can get into trouble when they come into the attention of the censors eventually.  The easiest solution for the blogger who wishes to preserve anonymity and therefore protection against retaliation is to have the site hosted overseas.  If a blogger inside China cannot procure an overseas site, there is the campaign for "Adopt a Blog."  The adopter will have some responsibility for the contents of the adoptee, insofar as no laws are being broken in the hosting country.

The relationship between national laws and the boundary-less nature of the Internet is still unresolved.  In 2000, a French judge ordered Yahoo! to ban access from France to Yahoo! auction sites that sell Nazi memorabilia, as required by French law.  Yahoo! resolved the crisis not by banning access through filtering, but by banning the sales of such items altogether.  The larger issue has therefore been deferred until another time.

In The Greatest Internet Crime Trial in China, the case was about a US-based, Chinese-language pornographic BBS (99bbs.com) directed towards China.  The activities on 99bbs (namely, movies, pictures and stories of a pornographic nature, including depictions of rape, incest, bestiality, snuff, etc.) is largely protected by the First Amendment in the United States, but it does violate Chinese anti-pornography laws.  Actually, in the case of 99bbs, it may even be breaking American laws if its contents are scrutinised carefully (namely, is the detailed description of the gang-rape of a 10-year-old child just pornography with no redeemable social value or is it a creative work of literary imagination?), but American law enforcement does not spend a lot of time checking out US-based Chinese-language web sites.  99bbs is still operating in the United States and it can be accessed from inside China via proxy services.