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Government imposes new surveillance system for Internet cafes

(RSF/IFEX) - Reporters Without Borders has condemned the Chinese government's latest measure to reinforce surveillance of Internet café users. Café customers will henceforth have to have their mugshot taken and their ID card swiped by a customer registration device to be installed in all of Beijing's estimated 1,500 Internet cafés by the end of the year.

"All Internet users are now suspects to be put on file in China," Reporters Without Borders said. "By citing a need to combat piracy and cyber-crime, the government has found a way to introduce a terrifying Big Brother-style system for automatically creating files on Internet users. With no guarantees on how this information will be used, the Internet cafés could become places for all kinds of spying and informing."

According to a 16 October 2008 report in the daily "Beijing News", the data on new Internet café clients will be sent directly to the Cultural Law Enforcement Agency, whose job, in theory, is to combat piracy. The authorities will also be able to open up any registration device without a warrant and obtain all the data stored inside. Agency spokesperson Li Fei said the measure was designed to prevent "ID sharing" - different people using the same ID card.

After a fire that killed 25 people in an Internet café in the north Beijing student district of Lanjisu, in 2002, the authorities closed down 3,000 Internet cafés for good and closed 12,000 others temporarily, conditioning their reopening on their compliance with safety standards and their obtaining of a new licence. The Culture Ministry also restricted the access of minors to Internet cafés during school holidays, imposing a maximum visit length of three hours, in order to "limit the Internet's negative influences."

At the end of 2003, the government began forcing Internet café owners to integrate surveillance software into their systems in order to monitor online usage. The software allows the authorities to collect personal data on Internet users, record their browsing history and to be sent an alert when illegal content is viewed.

Since 1 September 2007, the Chinese cyber-police have been dispatching online patrols to Internet café computer screens to check on their users. Two virtual police officers called Jing Jing and Cha Cha pop up on the screens every half hour to remind Internet users that the authorities are monitoring the Internet closely. By clicking on the icons, Internet users can communicate with the cyber-police and report violations.

Around 40,000 cyber-police are deployed every day to monitor the Internet and filter for subjects regarded as sensitive by the Communist Party. China is one of the world's most repressive countries as regards Internet usage. Fifty cyber-dissidents are currently in prison for exercising their right to online free expression.

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