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Saturday, 29 January, 2000, 11:41 GMT
Can governments control the internet?

China: A cyclist rides by a billboard for an internet company

By internet analyst James Miles

Regulations announced in China this week aimed at preventing the leaking of state secrets via the internet are the latest measures introduced by numerous governments around the world to control online activity.

From North Korea to Cuba to Syria, officials are struggling to contain the tide of unwanted information that the internet threatens to unleash upon their countries' citizens.

China online
Users double every six months
Mostly men aged 18-30
E-mail and news sites top hits
35m e-mail addresses
1,500 websites in Oct 97; 15,000 Dec 99

China looks likely to become a case study for authoritarian governments as they battle to control what they see as the internet's darker side.

Within a few years, Chinese may well become the most commonly used language of the World Wide Web. And with the country's online population doubling every six months it will not be too many years after that before China becomes the most wired nation on the planet.

There are few if any other countries in the world where the internet has at the same time both enjoyed such phenomenal growth and aroused such deep suspicion as it has in China.

The country's rulers have been far quicker to accept the internet's potential commercial benefits than have their counterparts in Burma, North Korea or Vietnam.

Yet they continue their attempts to control and regulate the medium, often oblivious it seems of the internet's ability to work its way around any bureaucratic or legal obstacle put in its way.

Keeping pace with technology

China's latest regulations reflect the leadership's desperate efforts to keep pace with the new technology.

The number of Chinese internet users double every six months

Four or five years after the internet's first appearance in China, the government has now decided to issue a specific ban on the leaking of state secrets in cyberspace.

China's laws already made it clear enough that secrets have to be kept, but the government has finally woken up to the ease with which the internet is used to convey information it wants to keep concealed. The new rules also require all websites to undergo official scrutiny before they are published.

Measures have little impact

The measures are likely to have little if any impact. Often what the Chinese Government means by a state secret would be regarded by most other countries, and indeed by many ordinary Chinese, as routine information.

Dissidents who are now using the internet to convey news abroad of events that China would prefer to keep secret will continue doing so.

The new rules do not increase the probably minimal risk of detection by a police force that is ill equipped to monitor the fast growing volume of internet communications.

Some other countries that might well be watching how China's manages to ride the internet tiger include:

Burma: The authorities in Rangoon introduced internet regulations this month very similar to the restrictions that China has tried to impose. These include requiring internet users to register with the police and banning unauthorised websites and the transmission of material deemed harmful to the state. Burma is likely to be more successful than China in enforcing these regulations because private internet usage is still virtually unheard of, and even the ownership of an unauthorised modem can result in a lengthy jail term.

Vietnam: Slightly ahead of Burma in the easing of restrictions on the private use of the internet. Users must still seek permission from the government, and as in China, websites deemed politically or morally harmful are blocked. But internet cafes are beginning to open and if China's experience is anything to go by these will provide citizens with a way of accessing material with little risk of their browsing habits being monitored by the authorities.

North Korea: Private use of the internet is banned.

Malaysia: Opposition forces have made extensive use of the internet. Malaysia ruled in December 1998 that internet cafes must record the names of people who use their computers. But the government says it will not attempt to censor the internet and some Malaysian journalists publish political news on the web that would be banned from the country's broadcast or print media.

Cuba: Internet use in Cuba is only just beginning to extend to the general public. It is believed that e-mail messages are often monitored by the police.

Central Asia and the Caucasus: The watchdog group Reporters Without Frontiers issued a report last August describing the countries of this region as among the "enemies of the internet", with only very limited access provided.

Middle East: There is no direct access to the internet in Baghdad, while in Iran the authorities block sites deemed harmful to the state or the Muslim faith. Saudi Arabia also blocks access to sites that provide information considered contrary to Islamic values. In Syria, individuals are generally not allowed access to the internet.

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See also:
19 Jan 00 |  Asia-Pacific
Online boom for China
16 Sep 99 |  The Economy
China bans Internet investment
24 Oct 99 |  Business
China warns foreign web entrepreneurs
12 Feb 99 |  Asia-Pacific
China plays Net nanny
13 Oct 98 |  Asia-Pacific
China 'blocks' BBC Website

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