September 06, 2011, 10:16 AM — In case you were worried that China had been far too lax in its control over Internet access for its citizens or that all that freedom swashing through the Internet was going to wash away the firm base of Communist Party power, you have company.
A "commentary" (pronounced: warning) from a cadre of Communist Party policy writers warns that the world's most populous, most heavily firewalled country has become porous and vulnerable to information to political opponents using unapproved information to influence the opinions of the Chinese populace.
The commentary, which ran Friday in the overseas edition of People's Daily, said subversive opponents were transmitting information direction to Chinese citizens using Twitter-like services run by China's own Baidu search service, social-networking sites allowed by the Chinese government as well as banned sites those behind the Great Firewall of China can reach via proxy server or VPN.
"Internet opinion is spontaneous, but increasingly shows signs of becoming organized," according to the commentary, first published in the Communist Party theory-of-effective-oppression journal Quishi, which Reuters translates as "Seeking Truth."
The chief danger of too much access to the Internet is the potential for instability caused by an influx of commercial and political information not approved by government censors, which the commentary referred to as "rumors" (and which Westerners would generally identify as "facts" though, given that it's the Internet, there's probably a lot of truthiness, porn, trolling and a disturbingly high volume of counter-revolutionary LOLcatz.)
"Among the many controversies stirred up on the Internet, many are organized, with goals and meticulous planning and direction, and some clearly have commercial interests or political intentions in the background," said the commentary.
"Unless administration is vigorous, criminal forces, hostile forces, terrorist organizations and others could manipulate public sentiment by manufacturing bogus opinion on the Internet, damaging social stability and national security." – via Reuters 9/2/2011
(Anonymous? LulzSec? They're talking to you.)
China blocks Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and censors other services heavily – most notoriously Google's search service.
China's own Internet companies are allowed to run similar services, including the Baidu search service, Weibo micro-blogging Twitter analog, the Facebook alternative RenRen and other social-networking sites that are more locally targeted and more easily controllable than those of the West simply through location.
Despite the high level of control, controversies do arise following disasters such as the bullet-train crash in July that caused a storm of protest after government officials avoided responsibility, refused to say what caused the crash or what changes might be made to improve safety in the rapidly expanding bullet-train network that is seen as a primary way to drive economic growth even in geographically isolated sections of the country.
Despite the naysaying from party insiders, China is far more likely to allow growth in both access to and services on the Internet within the country, the better to control the flow of information rather than have to try to stop it altogether, according to a report published a day before the Party commentary, by Elinor Leung, head of telecom and Internet research in Asia for Asian market-analysis firm CLSA.
Some government agencies use Weibo in the same way U.S. agencies use Twitter – to make announcements and counter rumors using their own voice and their own version of the information, Leung wrote.
Weibo and other services are highly censored, especially of anything encouraging protest, spreading scandal or criticizing party leaders, she wrote.
Weibo already has more than 200 million registered users, many of whom resent having comments or postings disappear.
What can or can't appear on Chinese internal Internet sites is important to companies trying to do business in what has become the world's largest market in the real world and second-largest market on the Internet.
Foreign companies are also wary of China's refusal to honor or often even acknowledge Western rules on copyright and intellectual property, which lead to rampant software piracy despite efforts such as the decision by a U.S. federal court in August not to throw out a $2.2 billion lawsuit by online security company Cybersitter accusing Chinese companies of stealing its code and reselling it as their own.
So far the suit has had no effect, nor is it likely to.
In May eight pro-democracy activists sued Baidu and the Chinese government for censoring pro-democracy speech on internal Internet sites, acting as an "enforcer" of Chinese government policies and violating the First Amendment rights of U.S. residents accessing Chinese sites.
Even the lawyer filing the suit wasn't optimistic about its chances.
"It would be futile to expect Baidu to change," Reuters quoted him as saying.
"The way the Chinese government manages the Internet in accordance with the law accords with international norms and is a sovereign matter," according to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu. "According to international law, foreign courts have no jurisdiction."
A white paper released by the Chinese government in June of 2010 defends its policy of censorship – first as the policy of a sovereign country that must be acknowledged as valid by the rest of the world, second as a mechanism for stability in a country whose size, cultural diversity, inaccessibility of many regions and frequent rebellions have always made it difficult to control.
Nevertheless, according to the Chinese government's assertions and acknowledgment that secret laws define and enforce censorship on the Internet, "Chinese citizens fully enjoy freedom of speech on the Internet."
That may be true, but only of Chinese citizens living in other countries who are unafraid of reprisals against family or friends back home.
Inside China, even by the government's own admissions, Internet access is anything but "free."
The West will continue to pressure China, however, and both Western corporations and pro-democracy activists will continue to annoy its government. China is simply too large, powerful and potentially lucrative to be ignored.
Despite high levels of interest, growth in Internet use slowed to the point that only about 50 million new users are coming online per year according to China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC), a non-profit group with Chinese government connections.
Pro-Internet forces in China are disappointed by that. Despite an online population 50 percent greater than the total population of the U.S., only 36.2 percent of Chinese are online, according to CNNIC.
In the U.S. 77.3 percent of the population has access to the Internet according to Internet World Stats.
That means, despite having far more Internet users now than the U.S., the number of Chinese who have yet to hit the 'net has the potential to more than double.
The question some elements in the Chinese government are asking, apparently, is whether the control methods Chinese censors have relied on until now will be able to scale to cover a population that huge.
Given the experience of Western companies and governments in shutting down both legal and illegal access to information via the Internet and success of hackers and underground political groups to use it as the world's most powerful megaphone, I'm betting the answer is "no."
Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.