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China steps up policing of new websites

Individuals who want to launch sites will be required to verify their identity with regulators and have a photograph taken. A government ministry will review requests.

February 25, 2010|By David Pierson
  • A man uses a computer at an Internet cafe in Beijing. The government says its new requirement to register individuals seeking to start websites is intended to stifle Internet porn, but critics say it serves to discourage Internet users from engaging in any activity that challenges the government's authority.
A man uses a computer at an Internet cafe in Beijing. The government says… (Ng Han Guan / Associated…)

Reporting from Beijing — In a move that will give the government new powers to police the Internet, China will require individuals to verify their identities with regulators and have their photographs taken before they can set up a personal website.

To apply, an individual must visit his or her local Internet service provider's office, submit an identification card and pose for a photograph. Applications will then be sent to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology for review.

Chinese authorities in December banned the registration of new sites as part of what they said was a crackdown on Internet pornography. That ban has been lifted in favor of the stricter registration process.

The new rules add another layer of oversight in a country that already has some of the world's tightest Internet controls. Regulators are also considering stricter verification of the identities of people who buy mobile phones and for Internet users who leave comments online.

Google Inc. threatened to quit China last month in part because it opposes government efforts to censor its Chinese search engine.

Chinese government officials said the new rule was needed to stifle Internet porn. A state news article published Sunday quoted Li Yizhong, head of the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, as saying, "Internet security needs to be cured from its roots."

Critics say the new requirement has little to do with pornography and instead serves to discourage Internet users from engaging in any activity that challenges the government's authority. Central to Beijing's control, experts said, is throwing up enough roadblocks so that individuals in effect censor themselves.

"This new measure comes as no surprise, since a key element of control has always been about how to use disciplinary punishment and surveillance to create a self-censorship environment," said Xiao Qiang, director of the China Internet Project at UC Berkeley. "The government feels increasingly insecure with their ability to control the Internet; therefore more and more policies and controlling practices are aimed at enhancing a self-policing environment."

It's unknown when the new law will take effect. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology did not reply to requests for an interview. The new requirements apply only to China's domestic domain, known as .cn. Before the government moratorium in December, users could establish their own Web addresses through third-party sites such as Wanwang ( www.net.cn).

Users did not have to submit a photograph and, theoretically, could have provided false identification numbers. Experts say many users will migrate to servers overseas.

"Things will definitely be much more difficult now," said Chen Nan, a webmaster for an information technology site. "But people are just going to turn to dot-com domains. If you're not doing anything sensitive, you don't have to worry about getting blocked."

david.pierson@latimes.com

Nicole Liu and Tommy Yang in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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