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The Pacific : Wave of Internet Surfers Has Chinese Censors Nervous

June 26, 1995|From Financial Times

BEIJING — China set in place a service last week that may come to be regarded as marking a revolution in its links with the outside world: access to the Internet went commercial.

After a three-month experiment during which subscribers were invited to try out the global computer network, the Beijing Telegraph Administration began charging for connections.

The BTA reports a flood of inquiries, and officials expect the number of regular users to grow rapidly. Initially, the service is being offered in Beijing and Shanghai, but it is expected to spread to other areas by year's end.

So far, the BTA estimates the number of domestic subscribers at about 2,000, but this clearly represents a tiny fraction of the interest among China's 1.2 billion people, about 300 million of whom live in urban areas.

China is also at a dawn of a computer age. Two million personal computers are now in use, and ownership is increasing about 30% each year.

"We passed a milestone . . . with the commercialization of the service. It is a revolution not just for China, but for the world," said Ben Chen, international network solutions manager of Sprint, the U.S. telecommunications company that is providing the "gateways" to the Internet under an agreement with the Directorate General of Telecommunications.

For China, with its ballooning commercial aspirations, it is a revolution that is unavoidable, but Chinese officials are nervous about the linkup with a vast information network of almost unlimited potential.

Commercial considerations are driving interest in the service, which numbers more than 20,000 networks and more than 2 million host computers worldwide. Sprint estimated last August, when it agreed to provide its Global Sprintlink service tying in the Internet to China, that between 20 million and 30 million people in 154 countries were accessing the Internet, and that the number was growing about 20% a month.

Wu Jichuan, post and telecommunications minister, told reporters that "as a sovereign state, China will exercise control on the information" entering China from the Internet. "By linking with the Internet, we do not mean the absolute freedom of information."

But technical experts such as Chen say it is virtually impossible to stop the flood of information, from pornographic to political. "There is no way they can stop the flow, unless they impose strict controls on information flowing from the Internet, and then it's not Internet any more," he says.

"Access to the Internet means you can go virtually anywhere on the information superhighway," Chen says. "There are no control mechanisms that can tell which address you are trying to access."

But a BTA engineer said that the agency is distilling certain categories of data such as news. He did not provide details as to how this filtering is carried out, and foreign telecommunications experts are dubious about China's ability to block sensitive material.

Chinese media remain strictly controlled--satellite dishes were banned in 1993 to guard against uncensored programming--but controls on access to the information superhighway pose a technical challenge that may be beyond even the most ingenious forms of censorship.

One of the first constraints on more widespread use of the Internet may be cost--and the fact that most communications on the Net are in English. But with 50 million Chinese either able to speak, or in the process of learning, English, there is already a sizable pool of potential subscribers.

The cost, $73 per month for 40 hours' use, would be beyond the reach of most Chinese, although an increasingly affluent entrepreneurial class would be drawn toward facilities such as the Internet.

Although China has come late to the Net--Chinese academic institutions have had access only since last year, and they are developing their own nationwide information databases--appetite is likely to prove voracious for what is an Aladdin's cave of data.

At Sinochem, the giant state petrochemical conglomerate, He Jie, a young technician, is typical of the new breed of computer-literate Chinese who are "surfing" the superhighway in search of information, including details about trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

"Interest in the Internet in China is going to grow very fast," he predicts. "There is no way the authorities can censor the contents.

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