China Hones In On More Extensive Internet Control

Photo credit: Malika Khurana / Freedom House.

Photo credit: Malika Khurana / Freedom House.

China’s Internet controls, which were already among the most extensive in the world, have grown even more sophisticated and pervasive under the new Communist Party leadership, according to a Freedom House special report released Wednesday. This year, new regulations made it harder for activists to conceal their identity online; private companies stepped up their capacity to delete banned content, sometimes within minutes; and some circumvention tools, which help users access uncensored websites overseas, were significantly disrupted.

Throttling Dissent: China’s New Leaders Refine Internet Control explores the context of the recent leadership change in the Chinese Communist Party during the period May 1st 2012 – April 30th 2013. It includes an assessment of Internet access in China and how it is curtailed; a new generation of censorship and manipulation techniques that govern content; and the laws and regulations used to find and punish individuals who disobey the rules.

The Chinese government reported 654 million Internet users as of January. Mobile phones replaced broadband as the number one means of accessing the Internet in 2012; 986 million mobiles users were reported.

“As more Chinese people get online and encounter constraints, more adopt tools and workarounds to avoid them, a sign of tremendous public demand for Internet freedom,” said Madeline Earp, research analyst for Freedom on the Net at Freedom House. “But instead of relaxing control, CCP leaders under President Xi Jinping are refining China’s technical and regulatory apparatus to stop citizens from evading censorship and surveillance.”

There are several key findings in the report, including:

  • Surveillance exposed more people to repercussions for online activity. December regulations mandated more real name registration online, formalizing existing checks on anonymous communication. It’s still possible to defy these rules, but not for mobile Internet users, whose phones are already registered—and more Chinese people got online via cellphone than broadband for the first time in 2012. China’s cybercafés are now 40% owned by chains, which are easier for authorities to regulate than independent businesses.
  • In Tibet and Xinjiang, police searched mobile handsets for banned content, and jailed dozens for using digital tools.  Security agents there searched cellphones to pre-empt allegedly anti-state activity. As international concern at the rising number of self-immolations in Tibet mounted in 2013, at least twelve Tibetans were detained for inciting separatism and publicizing suicides, including sending photographs of burning bodies overseas via mobile phone. In March 2013, twenty ethnic Uyghurs received sentences ranging from 5 years to life in prison on terrorism and separatism charges for alleged militant activity involving Internet, phone and digital storage devices. At the time, the Uyghur American Association in Washington said that the sentences “reflect a Chinese government move to increase control over information that contradicts an official narrative of conditions in [Xinjiang]’’ and that they ”are intended to scare Uyghur people from discovering an alternative account of events in their homeland and is a violation of their right to freedom of information.”
  • Private innovation served censors, not customers. Traffic on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs)—used to bypass censorship—was disrupted, sometimes obstructing commercial use. Domestic companies must censor to succeed. To stay ahead of evolving official directives and restrict creative online activism, they’ve produced sophisticated and nuanced controls: Instant messages containing sensitive keywords disappeared, connections using VPN tools were severed, and public microblog posts were quietly made private, visible only to the author.
  • Activism was manipulated for political gain. A Criminal Procedure Law amendment took effect in January 2013, strengthening legal grounds for detaining anti-state suspects incommunicado. Internet users enforced President Xi’s 2013 anti-graft campaign by scrutinizing local officials for signs of overspending—though never top leaders; Bloomberg’s website was blocked in 2012 for reporting on Xi’s own wealthy connections. Sometimes a political faction seemed to briefly lift censorship on content that would discredit an opponent.

China is one of the most systematically controlled and monitored online environments in the world. It increasingly serves as an incubator for sophisticated new types of Internet restrictions, providing a model for other authoritarian countries. It takes only 24 hours for Sina Weibo to delete most banned posts.

The report concludes that “Authoritarian regimes around the world look to Chinese methods of information control as a model, but activists can do the same. Anticipating what methods of censorship and control may be coming down the pipeline in China would be valuable for governments and Internet users seeking to safeguard online freedoms against further encroachment.”

Reporters Without Borders calls China “the world’s biggest prison for journalists, bloggers and cyber-dissidents” and documents a total of 69 netizens in Chinese jails as of February 2013.

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