China vows to clip freedom of social media

By : |October 26, 2011 0

BEIJING, CHINA: China will intensify controls of online social media and instant messaging tools, the ruling Communist Party said in an agenda-setting document that marks the government’s highest-level reaction so far to the explosive growth of microblogs.

Beijing’s vow to strengthen Internet administration and promote content acceptable to the ruling party appeared in the communique of a recent party leadership conclave published in the official People’s Daily on Wednesday.

Communiques from the Communist Party’s Central Committee, which held its annual meeting this month, set the broad agenda for policy-makers. This one made clear that party leaders are looking for ways to better control, not snuff out, the microblog services that have become wildly popular channels for spreading news and opinion that can unsettle the government.

"Strengthen guidance and administration of social Internet services and instant communications tools, and regulate the orderly dissemination of information," said the communique, which made no reference to microblogs as such.

"Apply the law to sternly punish the dissemination of harmful information," added the document. It did not give details of what form firmer regulation may take.

The announcement builds on a stream of warnings in state media that has exposed how nervous Beijing is about the booming microblogs — called "weibo" in Chinese — and their potential to tear at the seams of censorship and controls.

Chinese microblogs, especially Sina Corp’s dominant service, carry plenty of gossip and harmless fare. But they also offer raucous forums for lambasting officials and reporting unrest or official abuses. It is their potential to stoke popular discontent that most worries Beijing.

Microblogs allow users to issue bursts of opinion — a maximum of 140 Chinese characters — that can cascade through chains of followers who instantly receive messages, challenging censors who have a hard time monitoring the tens of millions of messages sent every day. Inventive users adopt alternative words to get around censorship filters.

The number of Chinese users registered on domestic microblog sites reached 195 million by the end of June, a more than threefold increase on the number at the end of 2010, according to the China Internet Network Information Center.

A top Chinese Internet regulator this month also called for stricter policing of microblogs while encouraging officials to use them to engage with citizens, indicating that Beijing was looking to better control such services, but not shut them down.

Sina and other Chinese microblog operators already deploy technicians and software to monitor content and block and remove comment deemed unacceptable, especially about protests, official scandals and party leaders.

This year, China has been looking to regulate its largely private and free-wheeling Internet industry more firmly. Last week, the Ministry of Commerce said it was looking at more rules to monitor the e-commerce sector after thousands of small business owners launched an online protest against the Taobao Mall website.

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