January 20, 1998


by Andy Oram
American Reporter Correspondent

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.—Running a government and feeling like you’re losing control? Are residents of your country pulling down Web sites and checking newsgroups from all over the world for contraband sexual or political content? Some Internet proponents will tell you that you have no recourse—that your rule is in fact outdated and soon to end. But it’s not true; take a page from China’s new regulations to see how you can still maintain some control over your citizens.

While news reports have made much of the restrictions on Internet usage publicized by China on December 30, the system it plans on using to trace and prosecute infractions has not generally been publicized. In effect, China is erecting an enormous technical and bureaucratic structure with the potential to institute content control for the first time in Internet history.

The regulations themselves are familiar to anyone who knows about censorship in China or other Asian countries. One must not advocate the overthrow of the government or the “socialist system.” (Though I might argue that the leaders of China for the past 20 years have done more to weaken what they call socialism than any protester!) In a statement reminiscent of anti-racist restrictions in other countries, users are prohibited from “inciting hatred or discrimination among nationalities or harming the unity of the nationalities,” which obviously includes proposals for the independence of Tibet or the western Xinjiang region. Sexually suggestive material, gambling, promotions of violence, and even lying fall in the category of banned behaviors as well.

But how can the government enforce such a sweeping, nationwide “acceptable use policy”? That is where innovation enters.

To trace the chain (in more sense than one) of Internet control, you must start with Section 11: “The network user should fill out a user application form when applying for network services.” In other words, anyone desiring an Internet connection must give information that allows the government to identify him or her later. To underline this key element of control, Section 6 states, “No-one may use computer networks or network resources without getting proper prior approval.” Don’t log in using your college roommate’s account!

The next link in the chain comes in Chapter 2 of the regulations, which requires Internet providers to cooperate with the Ministry of Public Security to help discover and prosecute misdeeds. This cooperation presumably includes providing information about users and what documents they are distributing or viewing. Section 10(5) of this chapter requires service providers to “establish a system for registering the users of electronic bulletin board systems on the computer information network.” While other forms of access such as Web use is not mentioned, the clear goal is to potentially monitor every access to information.

The regulations are now prepared to institute the core of the control measures, which is a set of “responsibilities for network security and protection” that Section 10 lays on all Internet Service Providers and other owners of network servers. In addition to apparently benign responsibilities (like assuring network security and training users) the services are required to report infractions of the law to the Ministry and to remove users who engage in such infractions.

To summarize, the government wants to record the identity of every Internet user, use that identification to track the newsgroups or other services they use, and investigate this information to punish unauthorized access. It is supremely ironic that the regulations also state, “The freedom and privacy of network users is protected by law.”

The guaranteed identification of users, with which we began this tour of Chinese regulations, forms the crux of Internet control. No one can control what you do if they don’t know who you are!

In most countries, users enjoy a relative anonymity of access. Few take advantage of the iron-clad privacy of encrypted messages or disguised account names, but still they are justified in feeling that nobody knows what they’re doing, just as their physical travel is reasonably secret despite the license plates on their cars.

Security is generally relative. Even license plates potentially provide monitoring. This is most poignantly demonstrated in Bosnia, where your license plate identifies your nationality and traveling in another nationality’s neighborhood can be dangerous. Many people want to eliminate absolute anonymity on the Internet, too, to prevent such abuses as libel or the distribution of child pornography. Now China shows how it can be done.

Once secure identification is in place, censorship follows. In the United States, one of the reasons the Communications Decency Act was struck down in court was that information providers cannot identify whether material is being downloaded by minors. Nationwide identification would remove that argument.

The big question left to be answered in China is whether the Ministry can keep up with the sheer volume of Internet traffic. Millions of requests for Web pages and newsgroup postings will be going out over the Chinese net every day; will it simply overwhelm the watchers?

Perhaps comprehensive monitoring is not necessary. If the government is aware of a few dangerous sites, they can track hits on those sites and ignore the rest. If a small group of collaborators share information, the government will not know—but it won’t care either. When something threatens to reaches a mass audience, that will be when they can step in and squelch the information.

Law professor Lawrence Lessig—who is experiencing his 15 minutes of fame (and flame) right now because the Justice Department has appointed him to the Microsoft case, but actually did more significant work on Internet regulation—has warned that Internet control could be instituted through a combination of forced user identification on one end and filters to screen content on the other. In China, the prediction is coming true. We would be naive to think that it can’t happen in the West as well.

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