Internet tests China's wisdom to balance free expression and public responsibility

09:16, March 11, 2010      

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Yan Qi, who runs a booming restaurant chain in southwestern China's Chongqing Municipality, was surprised to see her eatery's website,, was attacked by hackers.

That happened just days after Yan, also a member of the national advisory body, or the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), unveiled her proposal to the advisory body's annual session that all Internet cafes be run by the government, in order to effectively keep teenagers away from unhealthy website content.

Yan's proposal aroused widespread criticism by netizens. A survey conducted by the, where young Chinese Internet surfers converge, showed more than 60 percent of those polled said they disagreed with such a "drastic" and "irrational" idea.

The hacker incident encountered by Yan underscored a dilemma that the Chinese government faces, that is to allow netizens sufficient room to express themselves, while also ensuring the Internet remains a platform for responsible voices.

As China's Internet population grew to the world's largest, at 384 million by the end of 2009, the task of Internet regulation also becomes arduous as some unnamed sources take advantage of cyberspace to spread obscene and illegal content in return for fat profits.

Faced with this grim picture, government regulation of the Internet also raised questions and heated debate.

Hou Xiongfei, a deputy to the top legislature, said overlapping duties of different government departments sometimes impaired administrative efficiency.

At present, the Internet is regulated by at least four departments, including the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, General Administration of Press and Publication and the Ministry of Culture.

Ye, also a deputy publicity chief of Sichuan Province, noted that overlapping duties make it easy for related departments to count on others when encountering troubles and shun their responsibility.

To prevent such trouble, Ye ran a test by interacting with different local Internet regulators to set up a special mission office dedicated to cyber supervision.

Under the management of the new office, more than 10 illegal websites were closed and more were subjected to media scrutiny.

Wang Xia, also a deputy to the NPC, submitted a bill to create a pilot program for using real names when making comments on online forums.

Wang, a justice of the Chongqing local court, said real-name systems could more accurately target violators and make them more responsible when commenting on public affairs.

However, Wang's view was opposed by many social researchers and media professionals who believed over-supervision is not desirable, since the Internet could be cleansed by itself.

Yu Guoming, deputy head of the School of Journalism of China Renmin University, said that Internet offered netizens a space to vent their anger, which reduced the possibility that they do something harmful to the real society.

"If you press them too hard, they will explode in the end," Yu said.

Further, he suggests that over-supervision hurts social harmony and people's interests.

Last December, China launched a six-month campaign against online pornography as vulgar content had become prevalent through mobile WAP sites which seriously threatened people's mental health.

The government has shut more than 16,000 pornographic websites, checked 13.5 million domain names with 12,000 domain names becoming inaccessible by Feb. 10, according to data released by the State Information Office.

The clampdown against online pornography is not only intense in China, but also a common practice in other countries.

In the United States, those found guilty of the deliberate transmission of obscene content to minors face a two year jail penalty. In Germany, telecom operators are obligated to report the list of illegal mobile message distributors to the federal government.

Experts also suggested more grassroots participation should be encouraged since government efforts alone are not enough to effectively stem illegal content.

Guo Guoqing, a sociology professor with the China Renmin University, suggested inviting netizens to provide ratings on websites which could become a criteria for government actions.

Hou Xiongfei also noted that more efforts should be made to encourage pubic supervision, as there are too many websites for government to monitor.

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