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Microblogging websites to recruit censors to step up pressure on netizens

(RSF/IFEX) - The ranks of China's censors are visibly growing along with measures aimed at monitoring the public's communications and personal data. The authorities have just announced that China's microblogging websites - sites offering Twitter-style services - will be told to appoint "self-discipline commissioners" to be responsible for censorship.

In a parallel development, the authorities have announced that, to combat mobile phone spam and fraud, anyone wanting to buy a mobile phone that uses pre-paid SIM cards will now have to show identification.

"China's censors are giving themselves an additional layer of control," Reporters Without Borders said. "The Great Firewall of China is getting human reinforcements to boost its effectiveness. But if they are held to strict performance criteria, it seems these commissioners are being assigned an impossible mission, given the volume of information circulating online for which they will be responsible."

The press freedom organisation added: "Nonetheless, their very existence will be dangerous because of their nuisance value and because they could encourage microbloggers to censor themselves. Meanwhile, under the pretext of combating spam, a new blow has been dealt to the personal data of China's mobile phone users."

The decision to appoint self-discipline commissioners was taken at an Internet oversight meeting in Beijing on 27 August 2010. According to the government media, the results of an initial experiment with microblogging self-censorship in Hebei province were deemed sufficiently satisfactory to extend it to eight microblogging platforms in Beijing: Sina, Sohu, Netease, Iphonixe, Hexun, Soufang, 139Mobile and Juyou9911.

The microblogging platforms will themselves have to hire the commissioners whose job it will be to monitor and censor anything that could threaten China's security and social stability. They are supposed to target content linked to illegal activities, pornography and violence, as well as baseless rumours and politically sensitive issues. Although hired by the site, each commissioner will be responsible for its content and will be operationally independent. They will also be independent of the official Association of Journalists of China.

This week's announcement follows a crackdown in mid-July on certain social-networking websites, especially microblogging services, which are very popular in China.

It is not the first time the authorities have forced online media to police themselves. The Internet Society of China (ISC), an offshoot of the information industry ministry, drafted a "Self-Discipline Pact" in August 2007 that was signed by more than 20 companies that provide blogging services, including Msn.cn, Renmin Wang, Xinlang, Sohu, Wangyi, Tom, Qianlong Wang, Hexun Wang, Boke Tianxia, Tianji Wang, Yahoo.cn, Huasheng Zaixian, Bolianshe and Tengxun. The pact can be used to get service providers to censor content and identify "subversive" bloggers.

Some 300 websites and Internet service providers signed a similar self-discipline pact in 2002 that was promoted by the Chinese Internet Association. They undertook "not to produce or disseminate harmful documents or content liable to endanger national security or social stability; and not to break the laws or regulations or to spread false news, superstitions or obscenities." The pact also envisaged "cooperation by sites in combating cyber crime and failure to respect intellectual property rights."

The reinforcement of control over microblogging websites has been accompanied by a new offensive against the proxy servers employed by Chinese Internet users to get around the Great Firewall. Access to Freegate and Ultrareach, two of the most popular proxies, was made very difficult for several days from 27 August. Their developers reacted to the blocking by making updated versions of their software available. The game of cat and mouse between censors and the promoters of circumvention techniques continues.

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