China extends law controlling state secrets to Internet

New regulations serve as warning

practical application difficult


BEIJING -- The Chinese government issued stern new regulations yesterday intended to control the release of information on the Internet, underscoring the government's love-hate relationship with cyberspace in a country where the number of Internet users is growing dramatically.

The new regulations, which were published in yesterday's edition of the Communist Party newspaper People's Daily, specifically govern the posting and dissemination on the Internet of "state secrets" -- a vaguely defined term that has been applied by the Chinese government to cover any information whose release it has not sanctioned.

The new pronouncement might have little practical impact, because much of what is formally forbidden under the new rules was already illegal. Enforcement will be difficult in a country brimming with Internet cafes and free e-mail services. And government officials will be cautious about damping an industry whose exuberant growth has been a magnet for foreign investment.

For the moment, people here say the regulations serve mostly as a very loud warning that could have some inhibiting effect on the lively discussions that now criss-cross China via e-mail and through postings in chat rooms.

The regulations illustrate the Chinese government's resolve to tame if not totally control the unwieldy beast that is the Internet, which has rapidly become a means for the Chinese to bypass the state-controlled media to obtain and transmit information.

The new regulations directly apply for the first time China's state secrets law to the Web, including chat rooms and personal e-mails.

For example, the use of e-mail to transmit what might be regarded as secret information is expressly forbidden. Chat rooms must screen their content. And Internet sites are required to submit to "examination and approval by the appropriate secrecy work offices," although the rules do not specify what that procedure involves.

A basic principle of the new "Computer Information Systems Internet Secrecy Administrative Regulations" is that "whoever puts it on the Internet assumes responsibility."

"Any information provided to or issued on Internet Web sites must obtain the inspection and approval of secrecy censorship," the regulations state.

In the past few years, the Internet has emerged as an effective propaganda tool of the Chinese government, but also as a potent method for organizing and publicizing popular discontent.

It has been used by overseas dissidents to communicate with kindred spirits in China and by the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement to organize protests. Last week, a group of disgruntled farmers in a small village in Anhui province in central China even turned to the Internet and e-mail to successfully expose a corrupt local Communist Party chief.

Computer technician Lin Hai, 30, was sentenced to two years in prison in January last year for providing 30,000 Chinese e-mail addresses to Chinese dissidents abroad.

There are nearly 9 million Internet users in China, up from 2 million a year ago, according to a survey by the government's China Internet Information Center. But some feel the 9 million figure is too low; the same center also found that there are 35.6 million e-mail accounts in the country.

In recent months, government officials have repeatedly said that they planned to issue new regulations to further control both the content of and the financial arrangements behind the Chinese Internet. Yesterday's regulations are the first, but probably not the last, effort to spell out what that control might entail.

Another law, adopted quietly last fall, requires all those who use encryption software to register with the government by next Monday. The software encodes e-mail messages so that they cannot be read by anyone but the intended recipient.

Financial regulations will follow soon, officials say, which are expected to restrict in some way foreign investment in the Chinese Internet.

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