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China Clamps Down on Internet News, Blogs

Times Staff Writer

The Chinese government this week announced new steps to control information available on the Internet, saying the regulations were designed to foster “healthy and civilized” news.

Websites and portals will be allowed to distribute only information and opinions published in the state-owned print media. In recent years as computer use has grown, bulletin boards and discussion groups have become vibrant news conduits, often breaking stories that would not have appeared in the staid government media.

China has more than 100 million Internet users and the regulations appear to be aimed at reducing the gray area that many online groups have used to push the limit on freedom of information. At the same time, the wording is so broad, experts said, that enforcers could punish a person who sent an e-mail to friends after watching a local riot.

The Chinese government already has in place one of the most sophisticated firewalls between itself and the outside world, and the new regulations appear aimed at tightening controls on Internet content providers within China.

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The regulations require groups to register as “news organizations” before they can distribute certain kinds of information over the Internet. That entails obtaining the approval of local and national agencies, submitting to on-site inspections, maintaining a violation-free track-record or $1.2 million in capital and having at least 10 full-time employees, some with long-standing media experience.

On the content side, blogs and websites are not allowed to disseminate anything that is deemed to endanger the constitution, state security or the nation’s dignity nor anything that fuels superstition or threatens the social order. Pornography, online gambling and crime are also prohibited, as are postings that spread insults or publish news about illegal gatherings, riots or unofficial groups.

The regulations, which give authorities enormous discretion to define what is permissible, come shortly before an important Communist Party meeting scheduled for October.

“The rules are very flexible,” said Zhang Xingshui, an attorney with the Beijing Kingdom law firm. “A lot depends on whether those pursuing the case are looking for justice or just want to find you guilty.”

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Administrative penalties include fines of up to $3,750 and the loss of the Internet license. Those in violation are also subject to criminal and national security charges.

Legal experts say the rules appear partly aimed at the large number of environmental, labor and social non-government organizations, which along with the media have been a target of recent government crackdowns.

The government is particularly concerned about the use of the Internet to report on riots, official corruption, environmental and labor scandals and land appropriation -- matters that threaten Communist Party control. State planners are worried the Internet affords opportunity for Chinese protesters to link into a more potent political force.

“Workers and people in the countryside are using the Internet increasingly to network and learn how their fellow workers pursue their demands locally elsewhere,” said Robin Munro, a human rights expert at the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin. “A major part of these new rules appears aimed at crippling the Internet’s basic networking capability.”

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An employee at one major Chinese website, who asked not to be identified for fear of losing his job, said the industry had been living with many of these restrictions for months, adding that there was a benefit to having them clarified: “It was often difficult to decide what to do.”

The Chinese Internet has much less freedom than in the U.S., he said. But it still has more latitude than conventional Chinese media. “We shouldn’t be too idealistic,” he added.

The rules also appear aimed at addressing Internet-related social problems, legal experts say, including the use of anonymous postings to make slanderous allegations.

The rules state that Chinese investors can hold a maximum 49% stake in Internet-related companies. This may be the groundwork for the state to transfer more media control into private hands, industry experts said, and make it more globally competitive, so long as Beijing feels it can maintain control.

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Ding Li in The Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.


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