Great Wall in cyberspace

January 30, 2000

The following is an excerpt from an editorial in Friday's Los Angeles Times:

China's no-nonsense-named State Bureau of Secrecy has issued a list of proscriptions to Internet users aimed at protecting the government's control over the flow of information and its monopoly on power. Internet users, including those sending e-mail or participating in chat rooms, are banned from sending or discussing "state secrets."

What's a state secret? In practice, it's any information -- for example, corruption within the Communist Party -- that has not been officially released.

At the same time, the Bureau of Secrecy has ordered businesses and individuals to register with the government all software used to protect transfers of proprietary and other sensitive information. In short, the regime claims the authority to know everything that's going on in cyberspace and to crack down when it doesn't like what it sees. But the task is self-injuring and to a great extent unenforceable. China officially counts 8.9 million Internet users, up from just 4 million in the first six months of 1999. That's not great in a population of 1.2 billion, but the numbers are expected to expand geometrically in coming years.

The regime, although it recognizes the Internet's importance to business development and economic expansion, is betting that it can limit information and gain the power to snoop into business secrets without harming China's prospects for growth. This approach, however, is clearly antithetical to what the expansion of information technology is all about. One Western specialist in Beijing notes, "It's like saying you want to develop railroads and then throwing down a different gauge track not used anywhere else in the world." China seeks greater integration in the global economy, but at the same time it is taking steps that are likely to alienate foreign businesses and investors.

The crackdown is already under way. The Wall Street Journal reports that some Web site operators have been warned to say nothing before May about Taiwan's presidential election in March. China aims to erect a Great Wall in cyberspace to keep out unwanted news and comment. Time will show that can't be done.

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