Purifying the Chinese Internet

The blogger's preface:  The main body of this post is a full translation of an article in Nanfang Weekend.  This is unusual because it is a view from the people inside building and defending the Great Firewall of China.  Those from the outside tend to see only freedom of speech and thought issues.  Meanwhile, those people inside have completely different objectives, priorities, perceptions and language.  They have a set of fears and concerns about pornography, gambling, swindling, and so on, on top of that sensitive freedom of speech/thought issue.   For those on the outside, to insist on talking only about the freedom of speech/thought issue will never get through to those on the inside until those other issues are also addressed in the discussion.  For a more explicit presentation, see this previous post: Hinano Mizuki: The Case for Internet Censoring in China.

(Nanfang Weekend)  Fourteen Departments United to 'Purify' the Internet.  August 18, 2005.

"Using real names on the Internet" is about to come.

On the early morning of July 21, Beijing University Student Wu entered the  QQ network as usual -- this is China's largest instant messaging service.  The little fat penguin sent out a system-wide message: "Dear respected user:  In conjunction with the administrative work for the Shenzhen Public Information Service to create a healthy network environment and to build a harmonious society, Tercent will be registering the real names for all QQ group founders and administrators ..."

Wu was surprised because he was such a QQ group administrator.  On this day, this news became a hot point of discussion among QQ groups.

Very quickly, the official notice from the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau appeared on QQ.  This is part of the work of the Public Security Bureau on cleaning up the Internet: "This year, at various Internet chat rooms in our city, there were chat groups, forums, BBS, Internet SMS and various Internet public information services in which there were illegal assemblies, illegal alliances and obscene behaviors being observed.  In order to protect national security and preserve social stability ... from July 10 to September 30, we will be conducting clean-ups on network public information services."

From July 20, the "real name" system became a hot topic at all the major portals, triggering vigorous debates.  This is linked to the vast influence of the QQ network -- there are more than 100 million active QQ users, including 8 million people who are QQ group founders and administrators.

The Shenzhen Public Security Bureau had not anticipated that the announcement would lead to so much social effect.  "Prior to this, a similar announcement of the regulations were posted at various Shenzhen portals and did not cause many people to speak up."

With so many people having to be registered, this is undoubtedly a massive and tedious task for Tercent and will increase the cost of operation.  Since the notice went out on July 20, the university student Wu has still not received the detailed notice.  He believed that even with the preparatory work done by Tercent and the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau, it is unlikely that this project will be completed quickly.

In thinking back about this event, Wu was not surprised: "The announcement came suddenly, but it was expected.  The university BBS's require real names now, right?  It was a matter of time before it happens at QQ."

Earlier when the debate over the "real name" system first came up in early 2003, Tsing Hua University professor Li Xiguang proposed: "The National People's Congress ought to legislate against people expressing things anonymously on the Internet."  His suggestion was considered "too extreme" by most netizens, and this proposal died off.

In the middle of March this year, based upon the request from the Department of Education, all the university BBS's were turned into intranet platforms.  The BBS's at Beijing University, Tsing Hua University, Nanjing University, Fudan University and other universities adopted the "real name" system.  Current students had to register with their student identifications in order to enter the BBS forums again, and the BBS's were no longer opened to outsiders.

"Actually, although the 'real name' system was implemented now with a formal document, the same process had always been going on."  Shenzhen City Public Security Bureau Network Security Monitoring Department director Qiao Zhi explained to our reporter.  The various Shenzhen portals and the well-known chat rooms are under the "real name" system.  BBS forums at the national portals such as Sina.com and Xinhua Net also register the "real names" of the network administrators.

"We could have done this without saying anything, and the effect would be the same.  The reason that we went ahead with a highly visible policy announcement is that we know that QQ has a huge influence and we did not want them to feel that this procedure was directed at them specifically," according to a person in the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau.

As this person said, the scope of the "real name" system will not be for QQ alone.  The signs are that an even larger storm is coming soon.  At 10am on August 9, our reporter went to the Shenzhen City Public Security Bureau Network Security Monitoring Department office, and director Qiao Zhi was signing a receipt for a document.  He said immediately, "The Ministry of Information Industry has just sent a document to say that online games will require 'real names.'"

Just as the 'real name' system for netizens is about to arrive, the 'real name' system for websites has already been implemented.

Since March this year, the Ministry of Information Industry began to register web sites around the country.  All the provincial and municipal Telecommunication Administration departments and several hundred thousand web sites took part.

Actually, the work on cleaning up the Internet began July last year.  From July to October, the Public Security Bureau, the Ministry of Information Industry and 12 other departments worked together to clean up the pornographic websites.  In November, after the document from the central government to work harder on the Internet, the 14 departments worked together to clean up the Internet and that action has continued to now.

Another piece of the action in cleaning up the Internet is the network inspection by various network police during the first half of the year.  This is the first national inspection since the Internet appeared more than 10 years ago.  In China's "Computer Information Network and International Internet Security Protection and Administration regulations", the articles require that any new website must go through the steps with the local public security bureau within thirty days of operation.  Our reporter understands that during the first half of this year, the various public security bureau monitoring departments have been reviewing all the websites which have not yet registered.

The Ministry of Information Industry was aiming at those websites that are not business enterprises, including the free personal websites and the blogs.  It is important to note that in the Internet monitoring work of the Ministry of Information Industry, the Central Propaganda Department is the leader and this shows that the central government leadership pays great attention to this project.

The Ministry of Information Industry explained: "While the Internet brings benefits to people, it also brings problems such as pornography, violence, superstition and other harmful materials to poison people's minds.  This is especially likely to damage the healthy development of youngsters."

"Actually, the regulations for the non-enterprise websites had already been prepared."  China Internet Association secretary general Huang Dengqin told our reporter.  The 2002 "Internet Information Service Administration regulations" says: The government uses the permit system for information enterprises; but uses the registration system for non-enterprise information services.  "But for various reasons, it was never rigorously enforced."

The "various reasons" that Huang mentioned was that the previous focus of the government had been on the administration of the enterprise websites, and there were no detailed or systematic rules for the non-enterprise websites.  That was why the requirements for the non-enterprise websites had been superficial and perfunctory.

This time, the joint project was implemented with full force.  The local various Telecommunication Administration departments started early.  For example, the Fujian Telecommunication Administration department sent notices to the websites to require registration by April 15; the Hunan Telecommunication Administration department had a date of April 10; and the Tianjin Telecommunication Administration department had sent out notices on December 29, 2004.

"Websites registration is like giving a website a hukou (=residence permit) under a hukou system."  A government person points out that the Ministry of Information Industry is requiring 'real names' from non-enterprise websites and they will continue to improve their monitoring of the Internet.

Furthermore, according to the requirements of the Ministry of Information Industry, once a non-enterprise website has registered, it will be reviewed annually.  This regulation makes the registration system similar to the permit system for the enterprise websites.

Following the coordinated plans of the Ministry of Information Industry, the local authorities began implementation.  On July 5, Tianjin's This Evening reported that more than 1,000 websites in the city were closed down.  The website registration process was supposed to be completed by May 31.  By June 4, there were still more than 1,000 websites that had not completed their registration yet.  Therefore, the Tianjin Telecommunication Administration department issued the order to ban access to those websites temporarily.

At the end of July, the registration work was completed.  Many websites were closed down in accordance with the law -- software made them inaccessible.  The affected websites were listed in the various local Telecommunication Administration department websites.

A member of the Ministry of Information Industry told our reporter: "The registration work is done.  In August, we will make a summary and inform the society."

"Although it costs a lot to administer the Internet with little visible effect, no country has given that up.  This virtual society should be supervised by the government so that anarchy does not arise.  This is in the interest of the majority," said one commentator.

In April 1994 when the Zhongguan Village local education and science demonstration network was linked with the International Network, the Internet in China began based upon firmly on science and education.  It has been eleven years of history now.  From the beginning, the government was rigorous about administering the Internet.  With the increase in Internet functions and features, the administrative techniques had to become more complete.

Here is a proof:  In January 1995, the former Postal and Telecommunications Department permitted Internet services through telephone dial-up.  After one year, on February 1, 1996, the State Council announced the "Computer Information Network International Network Administration temporary regulations."  Two months later, the former Postal and Telecommunications Department announced the corresponding administrative regulations.

1996 was the most important year in the history of the Chinese Internet.  Shanghai Hotline started ... the first Internet bar opened ... the first news website People's Net opened ... a series of "firsts" indicated that the Internet has entered an era of popularization.

That same year was also an important year for government administration.  This was not because of the introduction of the two sets of administrative regulations.  In July that year, the State Council Information Office Group studied four large Internet websites and the technology and administration at about 30 ISP's, and this formed the basis for the ensuing series of administrative regulations.

With the rapid growth of the number of Internet users, the security of the Internet received a high degree of attention.  On December 30, 1997, the public security bureau announced the "Computer Information Network International Network Security Protection and Administration Regulations" and then established the Network Security Monitoring Department.  The various levels of network police were established for the purpose of monitoring the Internet.

The Monitoring Department was set up based upon the needs of the Public Security Bureau's Golden Shield project.  The Golden Shield project is an infrastructure project for the security of communications and computer networks.  According to the plan, since 1998, the Public Security Bureau spent seven years in three phases to establish a "National Public Information Network Security Monitoring Center" which is a network security monitoring system at three levels: the national Public Security Bureau, the provincial Public Security Bureaus and the local cities.

While the government administration was being enhanced, the Internet grew rapidly:  In October 1997, the Internet had grown to 620,000 from nowhere three years ago.  On December 31, 1998, more than a year later, the Chinese Internet Information Center announced that the number of users have passed 2.1 million.  On June 30, 2005, the number of Internet users has gone to 103 million, which is second in the world.

The Chinese Internet Association secretary general Huang Dengqin believes that in the 2000, the Internet has developed to the stage in which "content is king."  The State Council's "Internet Information Service Administration regulations" and the National People's Congress' "On the Decision to Protect Internet Security" were presented.

In order to stop netizens from spreading harmful information, the "Internet Information Service Administration regulations" stipulates: "Those who are in news reporting, publishing and electronic announcements through the Internet should record the source of the information, the date, the URL address or website name; the Internet Service Provider should record the user's name, time, accounting number, the URL address or website name.  The Internet Content Provider and the Internet Service Provider should retain the information for sixty days and offer the information when government departments wish to investigate in accordance with the law."

By working together, the State Council News Office, the Ministry of Information Industry and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television set up regulations for Internet news organizations, bulletin boards systems and Internet audio-visual programs.  These three types of Internet information organizations that are most frequently used by citizens were subject to rigorous regulation.

Two years later, Internet publishing came formally under the administrative control of the General Administration of Press and Publication.  The "Internet Publishing Administration temporary regulations" regulates Internet publishing organizations and their editorial obligations, requiring them to have specialized editorial staff to monitor content and guarantee the legality of Internet publications.

On June 16, 2002, a fire broke out at the Blue Maximum Speed Internet bar in Beijing with 25 deaths.  This tragedy shook the whole country and directly led to the release of the State Council's "Internet Service Provider Site Administration regulations."

According to these regulations, the Internet bar must record the names and identification of the users into a registry.  When a netizen arrives at an Internet bar, he/she must show an identification card to register his/hers real name and the information shall be retained for sixty days so that the various government agencies can locate him/her for any investigation.

Thereafter, in Fujian, Liaoning and other provinces, when a netizen arrives at an Internet bar, he must have an Internet user registration card first.  The card will have the name, gender, date of birth, identification type and identification number.  When a netizen gets on or off the Internet, he/she must present the card at the machine for verification.  In Xiamen, Wuhan and other places, close-circuit cameras were installed to monitor the sites fully.  With these different steps, the Internet information sources were purified and the chaos at the beginning of the Internet bar era was vastly improved.

From 1996 to now, the Central Propaganda Department, the State Council News Office, the Public Security Bureau, the Ministry of Culture, the General Administration of Press and Publication and the others of the 14 departments all took part in the administration of the Internet, issued about 50 sets of regulations and formed the most experienced and complete administrative system for the Internet.  A scholar who specialized in Internet law told our reporter that our government's high degree of attention to and administrative effectiveness over the Internet is "seldom seen in the world."

When the 'real name' registration system came out for the QQ group founders and administrators, South Korea was also pushing its 'real name' system.  Although the two are completely different things, the portals such as Sina.com still saw huge responses from netizens to the "Internet real name system."  Many experts and ordinary netizens debated vigorously.

Createer is the webmaster of a news page at a certain BBS, and he is also the QQ group administrator for that page.  When he received the 'real name' notice, he thought that it affected him greatly.

All along, Createer has been rigorously monitoring and checking for speech that violated the BBS rules.  He would advise those people who were too extreme in their speeches on the BBS to exchange opinions inside the QQ group instead.  He thought that this was the best of two worlds -- he was fulfilling his responsibilities as webmaster without offending netizens.

"During the past couple of days, my friends were all discussing this.  The BBS is open for viewing, so it is understandable that it should be controlled.  But QQ is for private chats, so there is no need for too many restrictions," said Createer.

Chinese Communications University professor Wang Sixin said, "The concept behind the design of the Internet is free exchange of information.  There was no basic requirement on exchange of mainstream information.  There is no need to think about how to control or determine personal identification.  From a technical point of view, the Internet is an environment which supports anonymity."

"In China, the anonymous Internet provides a virtual space so that it harbors feelings of discontent.  To a certain degree, this can dilute the urge to protest in real life and is therefore useful for social stability.  On the other hand, the government can read the true popular sentiments and opinions.  The voices of opposition can allow the policy formulators to revise their policies to suit social developments."  That was what Beijing University professor He Weifang told our reporter in an interview.

Some netizens agreed: "The 'real name' system is needed.  The many problems on the Internet are largely due to the system of anonymity.  Requiring 'real names' will cause the whole society to become more trustworthy and orderly."

"The development of the Chinese Internet is still at a preliminary stage.  Our netizens is only about 10% of the world.  To have more people participate, it is necessary to guarantee that the Internet lets people have the freedom to speak out," said Internet veteran and Bokee.com CEO Fang Xingdong.  "We can encourage netizens to use their real names, but we should not force them to do so.  It should be on a voluntary basis."

Sina.com and Sohu.com conducted large-scale Internet surveys.  As of the morning of July 31, Sina.com showed that about 70% out of about 6,200 respondents said that the 'real name' system had more ills than good.  At Sohu.com, the survey question was "How do you think the 'real name' system ought to be implements?" and about 15% out of the 1,500 respondents agreed with compulsory registration.

There are also netizens who are skeptical about the technical feasibility: "It is difficult technically to ensure that the registered name is real.  800 million netizens have to be verified to see if their registered material is valid.  How much time does Tercent need to verify them?  How much time does the supervisory department take to audit them?

"When we implement the 'real name' system, it is not the one that the netizens are thinking about," explained Shenzhen City Public Security Bureau Network Security Monitoring Department director Qiao Zhi to our reporter.  "We only require them from the enterprise owners, the virtual community administrators such as BBS webmasters and the QQ group founders to register.  This is different from the requirements for a real name to get a bank savings account or an airplane ticket."

He offered an example: "If you open a restaurant, you will have to register.  But the customers at the restaurant do not have to register.  The requirements for 'real names' from QQ group founders and administrators are based upon the same reason."

Will there come a day when a full 'real name' system be in place?  Qiao Zhi does not wish to predict.  But he said that he understood why there should be a debate.  As soon as the reporter sat down in his office, he called in his subordinates and he said, "You come in and listen too.  Even people inside here still don't understand."

Qiao Zhi's explanation is: "It is different from what the outside world understands.  We have been trying to seek a balance between preserving privacy and protecting order and safety.  As far as we are concerned, the Internet is a battleground and the keyboard is the handgun.  We are going where no one has gone before.

"Freedom and security are the problems that the whole world faces -- after 9/11 in the United States, everybody realized that the people and the government need to find the borderline between freedom and security.

"I believe, when the water is too clean, there is no fish," he said.

"The criticisms on the Internet make us feel the pressure.  But we know why the discussion has been one-sided -- the critics are usually vociferous.  Those who agree with us do not feel the urge to express their ideas.  Besides, if they get on the forums, they will probably be blasted."  Qiao Zhi's subordinate Li Changping laughed and said.

They all believed that the control is too relaxed and not tight enough.  "Everyday, we receive reports about Internet scams.  The law is lagging on this but the netizens' sense of security needs to be reinforced.  These are the constraints that we facing."

Concerning the sense of responsibility felt by Qiao Zhi and his colleagues about monitoring the Internet, Huang Dengqin emphasized the participation of the public during the government's administrative process:

"The Internet has permeated into all aspects of life.  It is impossible for the government to administer the Internet from their side alone.  The government can lead, and the industry and social forces can administer together to release the effectiveness, progressiveness and interactivity.  The government can set the standards for which games children can play and which information is banned on the Internet, and the public will monitor on the basis of those government standards."

He also told the reporter, "On this new administrative train of thought, there has been a consensus from various sides.  The government is preparing for that."

Qiao Zhi's son is 12 years old now.  In order not to let him be influenced too much by the Internet, Qiao has moved the Internet-enabled computer into the living room.  "So it becomes harder for him to learn bad things."

Based upon the current situation, he does not need to be too concerned about his child.  With the continual cleaning up of the Internet, time and again, there is hope that every corner of the Chinese Internet will be mopped up cleanly.