China tightens control over Web media

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China tightens control over Web media

Amnesty International’s recent report on human rights in China revealed the country has fallen short of its pledge to provide unrestricted Internet access leading up to the Beijing Olympics.

The Chinese government is tightening its grip on the flow of information, contrary to expectations that the upcoming Olympic Games would act as a catalyst in the fulfilment of its human rights commitments, claimed Amnesty International. This is evidenced by recent attempts to censor coverage of protests in Lhasa, Tibet by banning YouTube.

Sophie Peer, campaign coordinator, Amnesty International said: “We had hoped the Games would see an improvement in human rights as China had promised. With four months to go we’re still hopeful there can be positive changes made. Unfortunately, what we’ve found is that the wave of oppression is actually due to the Olympics, not despite of them.”

YouTube, BBC, CNN and Yahoo News websites have been regularly inaccessible, stated the activist organisation. Wikipedia and photo-sharing site Flickr have also experienced some censorship in the lead up to major events and Peer anticipates the Olympics are likely to trigger similar government intervention.

“We’ve seen sites come down in the lead up to a lot of major events, not just in response to the Tibet crisis. Last year in the lead up and during the National People’s Congress we saw Wikipedia suddenly disappear and YouTube blocked for weeks... unfortunately this could happen again during the Games,” she said.

Amnesty International expects Internet access to be offered to certain users in limited locations during the Beijing Olympics. Peer views this as a token gesture that falls short of promises made by the Chinese government to provide unrestricted Internet access for the duration of the Games.

“It’s not enough to offer a Western journalist in a five star hotel in Beijing Internet access, it needs to be sustained and available to all Chinese Web users,” she said.

Peer argued the complicit action of international Internet companies is contributing to the silencing of Web media and urges these organisations to apply pressure to Chinese authorities.

“The Internet companies involved need to say ‘we won’t engage in censoring people’s information any longer’,” she said.

While there is no definitive list detailing the number of terms blocked by the government’s sophisticated Internet filtering system known as the “Great Firewall”, Peer claimed subjects as diverse as workers rights, HIV, SARS, the environment, women’s rights, democracy and religion are regularly being censored.

“The implications are extremely far reaching. The number of terms that are blocked, searches that come up with false or no results, blogs and articles that are pulled down – it’s phenomenal,” she said.

According to Amnesty International, China uses routers to detect problematic keywords, and the regime is rumoured to have around 30,000 Chinese government employees monitoring information entering and leaving the country. The system is not infallible, however, as Web users have discovered ways to circumvent the filtering by using proxies. Peer asserted that this has not acted as a deterrent to other countries seeking a similar model.

“We know there are countries looking to adopt the very rigorous system that China has, which is a combination of software, human employees to monitor the Internet, government policy and fear tactics,” said Peer.

Amnesty International Australia recently launched the website, part of its greater campaign against Internet censorship in China.

In 1996 China heralded the ‘Year of the Internet’, despite there being only 150,000 connected users. Today, China has the world’s largest number of Internet surfers, according to research firm BDA. The report registered the country’s Internet user base at 210 million at the end of 2007.

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