The Mysterious Internet Police

(Southern Weekend)  The Mysterious "Internet Police" Surfaces.  By Cheng Gong (成功).  May 18, 2006.

[in translation]

On May 12, the Ministry of Public Security decided to implement Shenzhen's "virtual police" in eight cities around the country.  How did this approach come into being in Shenzhen?  How is it operated?  What are the limits to the powers of the "virtual police"?  How is it defined?  How do we get a balance between administration in accordance with the law versus protection of citizen rights?

On April 14, a certain Ms. Zhu at a certain IT company in the Huaqiangbei district of Shenzhen opened up the web page that the friend had told her about and became furious: her MSN and mobile telephone numbers had been published on the Internet.  Overnight, the young and pretty Ms. Zhu has become a female star gpt an Internet prostitution ring.

Previously, these types of malicious pranks leave the victims with no recourse.  In the case of Ms. Zhu, Shenzhen had a new method of handling.  Within two days, the person named He who spread this piece of malicious false information was arrested and placed under administrative detention for five days.

It was the Shenzhen "virtual police" on the Internet that helped Ms. Zhu out.

In a certain office on the 9th floor of the Public Security Bureau building in Shenzhen, Xu Qian was sitting in front of a computer and entering the main page of the Shenzhen News Net.  On the sides of the monitor screen two cartoon figures of "virtual police," one male and one female, moved with the mouse cursor.  The two cartoon police then "roved" around the web page.

These were the Internet cartoon police figures that the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau introduced in January this year.  The slightly plump male police officer with the police cap and standing on a keyboard is named "Jingjing" (警警).  The pretty female police officer is named "Chacha" (察察) and she is forever blinking her big eyes. 

"The Internet police cartoon figures are present at Shenzhen News Net, Shenzhen Hotline, QQ and more than 100 major forums in Shenzhen," said worker Wang Ke to this reporter.  "They are on duty twenty-four hours a day, and they guarantee that they will respond to reports or requests from netizens."

"The main purpose is to warn people and to deter irrational behavior and harmful information on the Internet," explained Xu Qian.  "Jingjing" and "Chacha" have cute images, they have police officer status, they are friendly and they are easy to accept."

Xu Qian and Wang Ke are Internet police officers at the Internet Security Supervisory Department of the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau.  In the past, they were just "lurking" in the dark at the forums and watching the Internet netizens bustle around.  The netizens had not even been aware that they existed.

Presently, more than 100 Internet police officers have formed a large Internet force of "virtual police" and they have stepped out into the open.  On the Internet, they now have the two cute image spokespersons, "Jingjing" and "Chacha."

"The keyboard and the mouse are our weapons."  The thin Xu Qian looked more like a shy university student than the traditional stern and stout police officer.  His office is set up like a commercial company office: central air conditioning, three rows of twelve cubicles separated by blue-and-white boards and everybody watching their computer screen quietly.  On the desk, there are no mountains of case files.  The setting is simple: one 17" LCD monitor, one 16-line green notebook and one telephone.

Xu Qian clicked on "Jingjing" and "Chacha" at the forum website and entered the Shenzhen Internet Police web page.  Then he began to handle the police reports filed by netizens and replied to them.  One netizen reported on some information about the 21cn website.  Because "there were just random codes on the page," Xu Qian deleted it in accordance with the regulations.  "Each day, we receive about 30 reports, but about 20% are useless."

In order to strengthen the "security" front, the Internet police also set up a "police sentry box" at the bottom of the Shenzhen News Net home page.  The red "@" on top of the police sentry box is perpetually spinning.  "Its effect is equivalent to an Internet '110'."

Furthermore, "Jingjing" and "Chacha" have obtained the QQ numbers: 66110 and 777110.  In their personal QQ space, they offer services such as filing police report, case studies, legal advice, and so on.  These services are provided by Xu Qian and his colleagues.

Xu Qian told this reporter that in order to maintain the Internet cartoon police, he and another 23 people are divided into 3 teams of Internet patrol squads.

On the Internet, they have to handle the various cases reported by the netizens: for example, theft of QQ identification numbers and game equipment items, etc.  "We are different from the police who patrol the streets on motorcycles."  Xu Qian only has to turn on the computer and sit in the office to "patrol" and "handle cases" in virtual space.

"The Internet police has always existed.  But they have now come from the background into the forefront, in order to solve the difficult problem about the lack of an image for the Internet administrators."  Shenzhen City Public Security Bureau Internet Security Supervision Department Propaganda Department chief Lin Changping said that the backdrop is very much related to the rapid growth of the Internet and the explosive increase in the number of netizens.

Shenzhen is a city that is relatively advanced in terms of Internet growth.  According to the CNNIC data published in January 2006, there are 111 million netizens in China.  In Shenzhen, the number of netizens grew from 10,000 in 1996 to 4 million in 2006 for a 400-fold increase.

"Each netizen corresponds to a person in the real world."  Lin Changping said behind every incident lies the shadow of the Internet in this age.

"Just like in the real world, most netizens are rational and law-abiding.  But there are some people who commit illegal acts on the Internet.  Internet incidents such as Internet thefts, scams, gambling and other illegal activities are increasing day by day.  All these things offer new challenges to the safe administration of the Internet, and they have motivated the Public Security Bureau to become resolute in managing the Internet well."

When the Network Security Supervisory Department of the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau was established, there were only four workers.  There are now almost 100 people, but they are still under a great deal of pressure since they have to be responsible for several million Internet users in Shenzhen.

In April 2005, the Network Security Supervisory Department of the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau began to experiment by using the name of the Shenzhen Internet police to answer questions from netizens on the local Shenzhen website.  At the time, Internet police officer Xu Qian was one of those who patiently answered questions on his work shift.

Later, the Network Security Supervisory Department began to try new methods of administration.  "We hired a specialized company to design a brand image for the Shenzhen Internet police, with several revisions during the process," said Wang Ke.  "It took eight months in all."

In January 2006, the virtual police officers made their appearance.  At first, the netizens doubted their authenticity.  "Do the real police have time for this sort of thing?"  It took the Internet police some effort to explain clearly what it was about.

After operating this for some time, the Public Security Bureau began to collect feedback.  Shenzhen News Net said that after "Jingjing" and "Chacha" appeared, there were fewer "spam ads" and "computer viruses" posted at the forums.  The most obvious example was that, during the Spring Festival, the amount of information about train ticket scalping decreased significantly.

As of now, "Jingjing" and "Chacha" had received more than 100,000 hits, of which 1,600 were police reports.  Of these, 235 contained useful information and about 600 were inquiries for legal advice.

When the two Internet police "Jingjing" and "Chacha" got popular, some people began to try to use them for devious purposes.  "Some scam shopping website posted the 'Jingjing' and 'Chacha' cartoon figures on their web pages in order to mislead the public into thinking that their websites were legal and mainstream."  Lin Changping thought that these cases contained some black humor.  But because the Internet police can track the inbound links, these fake websites actually drew the attention of the Internet police who found them quickly.

On May 12, the two-day national public security Internet administration conference chose Shenzhen as the meeting site.  At the conference, the Shenzhen virtual police received a great deal of attention from the Ministry of Public Security.

At the conference, the innovative management at Shenzhen was named the "Shenzhen model," explained Lin Changping.  The unique characteristics of this model were that it "publicizes the virtual administration and concretizes the virtual world."  It adopts the traditional policing model and builds an entire administrative system to guarantee Internet information safety.  The appearance of "Jingjing" and "Chacha" allows the Internet police to show itself to the public as cartoon police figures in the virtual world.  In truth, the Shenzhen Internet police not only make routine patrols of various sectors of the Internet, but they also have close to one thousand "Information Safety Workers" at the forums of the major Shenzhen websites working with the Internet police, "based upon the same relationship between street security people and the police patrol officers in the real world."

Ling Changping remembered most of all about the "K113 public bus" incident last year.  On November 16 last year, the Shenzhen Internet police found an article titled "The entire K113 bus was robbed this morning" at one of the websites.  This re-posting of the article around the country drew national attention, and formed a wave of critical voices about the public security situation in Shenzhen.  This had negative influences on Shenzhen's image as "a civilized city in the country" and the public security situation itself.

After investigation, it was found out that the article was completely fabricated.  The author of the essay and the person who published it were sentenced to 15 and 10 days in administrative detention.  After their quick arrests, the Shenzhen Internet police made public clarifications to the mainstream and Internet media.

The other idea behind the "Shenzhen model" is to have "real administration of the virtual society."  This involves the establishment of "real name registration" at websites in order to guarantee that the netizens will "keep their feet on the ground" in the real world.

"In common parlance, this means turning the website into a public place like a train station or public park for administrative purposes," Lin Changping told the reporter.  The Shenzhen Network Security Supervisory Department supervises more than 5,000 websites, of which about 400 are websites with interactive functions such as forums and chat rooms, and about 20 are large multi-functional portal websites.

The Shenzhen method of Internet administration received the attention of the Ministry of Public Security, which asked eight cities including Chongqing, Hangzhou, Wuhan and Chengdu to implement the model in June and will do so nationwide next year.

Lin Changping believes that the "implementation of the virtual police force requires a huge support system.  The 24-hour-a-day presence requires an adequate support staff, so that one must consider the allocation of police manpower resources."

Just as the "virtual police" became topical, the "civilized Internet movement" was also spreading like wildfire across the county.  Various discussions on "uplifting the civilized Internet" and similar subjects were appearing as headlines at the major portal websites.

"This is a sign that the central government wants to enhance Internet administration, and it is also a sign that the Internet industry wants to take spontaneous self-disciplinary action," according to Chinese Academy of Sciences Journalism and Communications Research Institute researcher Min Dahong.

Between April 3 and April 5, the Politburo Standing Committee member Li Changchun said at a Beijing research conference that the Internet is having an increasing influence on the spiritual culture of people, and it is therefore an important battleground to establish the spiritual civilization of socialism.  "We must follow the demand to establish honors and shames in the socialist system and actively build and promote civilization on the Internet, purify the Internet environment, oppose uncivilized behavior and form a new healthy and progressive trend in Internet civilization."

On April 9, 14 Beijing-based websites including Qianlong issued "Recommendations for a civilized Internet" to the entire Internet industry and propose that websites should "prevent unhealthy information in a self-conscientious manner" and make sure that establishing and maintaining a civilized Internet becomes part of the "project for constructing a moral socialism."

Afterwards, the Chinese Internet industry began to "clean up" their own websites, including the purging of harmful information such as pornography, politics and the like.  The Beijing Internet Evaluation Committee issued written criticisms against seven websites that were tardy in eliminating harmful information and demanded the most troubled websites apologize to the public.

Based upon the feedback, the intermediary results were that 14 websites have deleted more than 2 million unhealthy posts and pictures and closed down more than 600 forums.

Lin Changping agreed with the movement to clean up the Internet.  He used as examples: certain famous websites posted links to pornographic websites in pursuit of more website hits.

As for the limits on the power of the virtual police, some legal scholars are also wary even as they approve: How can we be sure that the law enforcementefforts of the Internet police not transgress boundaries, and how can we protect the freedom of speech and communication of the netizens?

"Just like the real name Internet registration system, the Internet virtual police is also controversial."  An industry veteran believes that the "Internet administrators must protect citizen rights as well as enforce the laws on the Internet, and so they have to seek a balance between the two."

As for the problem of invasion of Internet privacy that the outside world is most concerned about, the Internet police officers themselves seem to have a common understanding.  About entering someone's mailbox or QQ account, "that is an invasion of citizen privacy."  Xu Qian and his colleagues said unanimously.  "We will only patrol in public forums such as BBS's, just like the real-life police officers will only patrol the main streets, train stations and other public locations, and not invade into civilian homes."

Of course, this common understanding is not based upon any laws or regulations at the moment.  But Xu Qian is more concerned that some netizens may be "disappointed" -- after the media lifted up the mysterious veil of the Internet police, everybody finds out that the lovely, pretty big-eyed girl "Chacha" was in fact a male Internet police officer on duty.  Will this ruin the image?

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