China installs internet police officers in tech firms to curtail online freedom and stop spreading of rumors

In Beijing’s latest move to tighten control over the country’s online forums, the Government of China at a national working conference announced that it is planning to set up cybersecurity police units at major internet companies. The sites and social networks would no longer be kept under surveillance by remotely working human monitors working and keyword filters.

China’s Ministry of Public Security will set up the units at important websites and internet companies to help them prevent crimes such as fraud, cyberhacking, terrorist group communications and spreading of rumors. The long list also include pornography, which is used as a catch-all offense by the Chinese government. By keeping the definition of pornography vague, it has served as an excuse to close down the sites and social media accounts of political activists.

The move comes after earlier this year, a cybersecurity law draft that was presented called for tighter controls over internet companies. The law would need the web companies to store user data in China, reduce online anonymity, and share data with the government. Civil liberties group have strongly criticised the draft saying that it will only further limit speech in an already stifled country.

“While the Chinese government is known for its obsession with Internet control, the draft law sends a clear and chilling message of intent to further control online expression,” Sophie Richardson, China Director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement this week. “The law will effectively put China’s Internet companies, and hundreds of millions of Internet users, under greater state control.”

The companies that would have the new police units were not disclosed by the China’s Ministry of Public Security. Three companies have dominated China’s Internet sector: e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., gaming and messaging company Tencent Holdings Ltd. and search-engine provider Baidu Inc.

In a press statement, Alibaba said “Alibaba works with Chinese authorities to combat illegal and criminal activities on the internet. It is our priority to maintain the reliability and security of our platforms to protect our customers.”

While many of China’s 649 million internet users will continue to find out ways to access censored content, the government has shown time and again that it is ready to impose more rigorous limitations.

The limitations on internet use in the country have become more intense recently. For instance, the government has plans to replace all foreign technology with software produced in China by 2020, in its banks, state-owned companies, military, and important government agencies, which would be easy to monitor and control.

From the time President Xi Jinping assumed office in 2013! Beijing’s crackdown on online speech has intensified. Qiao Mu, a professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, told the Financial Times that setting up cyberpolice units directly inside internet offices could indicate the latest escalation in its campaign.

“The goal seems to be to a create an intimidating atmosphere inside the companies themselves,” Qiao says.

While China asserts that with the rise in cyberconflict war with the U.S. and other countries, such measures are necessary, the government is also further restricting individual freedom. To make it more difficult for people to find and share information online, the Chinese government earlier this year started cracking down on VPNs again, which it follows regularly to be in line with technological changes. It also made it difficult to access Gmail and started enforcing real-name registration.

As of now, there is no clarity whether the cyberpolice units would be applicable to international, as well as domestic, tech firms operating in China.

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