|Don's Home Places Tibet Internet cafes|
10/11/2002 Dow Jones International News
BEIJING (AP)--China has passed harsh new restrictions on Internet cafes, banning minors and demanding operators register users and keep records of what information they access on line.
The regulations, which take effect Nov. 15, impose tougher safety standards and requirements for licensing businesses that provide computers and Internet access to users who pay by the session. Smoking is to be banned, no cafe can open within 200 meters of a school, and all must close by midnight.
And though the rules were prompted by a deadly fire in an Internet cafe, they also point to long-held fears among China's communist leaders that the Internet could nurture subversion.
According to a copy of the regulations issued by the official Xinhua News Agency, operators must post a sign warning users not to access sites or download information about a long list of subjects, many of them politically sensitive.
Sites offering gambling, prostitution, pornography, crime and violence are banned. But so too are those that "harm national unification, sovereignty and territorial integrity" - a reference to advocacy of independence for Tibet , the western region of Xinjiang and self-governing Taiwan, which China claims as its territory.
Other sites forbidden are those that harm ethnic unity, incite racial hatred, sabotage social stability, undermine the government's strict rules on religious expression or popularize cults and superstition.
Some banned areas are almost too broad to be defined, a common feature in the Chinese legal system that allows prosecutors to define public information as state secrets. The rules forbid information that "threatens national security or harms national dignity and national interests," as well as that which "opposes basic constitutional principles."
Operators must keep records of users and the sites they access on record for two months and provide the information on request to police and regulators. Violators face fines of up to 15,000 yuan (US$1,800).
Xinhua said the rules aim to bring order to an industry that has expanded rapidly with little regulation.
"The business order is chaotic, safety is a problem, fires have occurred and the health and safety of the broad masses of the people, especially the young, have been seriously harmed," it said.
While China wants to develop the Internet to aid its growing economy, it has taken unprecedented measures to keep it from becoming a resource for free exchange of information and ideas. China has more than 45 million Internet users, most of whom gain access from connections at home or in the office.
Already, China operates a special force to police the Internet for content deemed subversive. Unknown scores of Web sites are blocked due to their content and such Internet staples as the search engines Google (X.GGL) and AltaVista (X.ALV) have been shut off to users in China because they permitted access to information on the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement and other sensitive topics.
Many of the regulations, including the requirement to register information users access, were already in force in Beijing.
All of Beijing's Internet cafes were shut after an August fire in a cafe in the capital's university district that killed 25 people. Other parts of the country followed suit, although most have since allowed cafes to reopen.
The fire prompted a storm of criticism of Internet cafes in the official media, especially the claim they were corrupting young people with computer games. Many cafes simply linked computers to allow users to play against each other - a practice banned under the new rules.
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China played a role in fire at Internet cafe
SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS EDITORIAL - Posted on Thu, Jun. 20, 2002
Authorities in Beijing have arrested two teenage boys they've accused of setting a fatal fire at an Internet cafe. They've thrown the propietor in jail and shut down all of the city's 2,400 cyber cafes -- for safety's sake, they say.
Yet the government is the unindicted conspirator behind the blaze that swept through Lanjisu Internet Cafe claiming two dozen lives last weekend. It was to escape police agents, government censors and an oppressive bureaucracy that places like the Lanjisu operated behind locked doors and barred windows, trapping people in unsafe conditions when a fire started.
As Mercury News' Beijing correspondent Michael Dorgan reported, the obstacles that authorities created to obtain a license for an Internet cafe reflects the government's wariness of the Internet. A license requires the approval of no fewer than five agencies; the process is unwieldy, and the government requires the installation of software to monitor use. That's why there are 10 times as many illegal Internet cafes in Beijing as there are the 200 ones with licenses.
China claims to have 56 million Internet users, second only to the United States, and the number is rising fast. Many of the new users are students who crowd Internet cafes to do e-mail, go to chat rooms and visit political sites the government has banned.
It's an uneasy peace. This week, the People's Daily, the Communist Party's house organ, condemned Internet cafes as corrupting young people by promoting pornography, games and gambling. The government has blocked foreign news sites and requires that Internet providers keep extensive logs of user activity and turn them over on demand. But the government is also plunging ahead with high technology development and the deployment of wireless and the Internet in its quest to become a 21st century economic power.
Beijing authorities haven't said when they will allow Internet cafes to reopen. When that happens, restrictions no doubt will be tighter and licenses even harder to get.
The controls can't work in the long run. In trying both to promote and contain the Internet, China is facing an inherent contradiction.
By giving voice to and raising the expectations of the young, the Internet is undermining totalitarian regimes, from Beijing to Tehran, even as those regimes try to control it.
See: The Internet in China - Chinese policy and ways of routing around censorship.