China defends control of web while praising freedom of speech

10 June 2010

CHINA HAS staunchly defended its right to censor online content, saying it will continue to block anything considered subversive or threatening to national unity, but that it will also guarantee freedom of speech on the internet.

The Beijing government “guarantees the citizens’ freedom of speech on the internet as well as the public’s right to know, to participate, to be heard, and to oversee in accordance with the law”, it said in a 31-page white paper just issued.

Brushing aside this apparent contradiction between pushing for censorship while encouraging freedom of speech, the government vowed to boost web participation from 29 per cent now, or 384 million users, to 45 per cent in the next five years by pushing into rural areas where the document said there was a “digital gap”.

China’s control of the web has led to a flurry of international criticism. During a visit to China, European Commission vice-president Neelie Kroes said the World Trade Organisation should examine China’s web censorship “as long as that is a real barrier for communication”. Facebook and YouTube are not available and searching terms such as “Dalai Lama” and “Tiananmen Square crackdown” can bring you up against the system of internet controls known as the Great Firewall of China.

The white paper is intriguing, as it shows how online censorship works in much the same way as such controls do in other areas of life – to ensure state security.

Web censorship is often framed as aiming to stop minors gaining access to pornography and gambling sites, but a key aspect of the controls seems to be to stop access to information that might threaten Communist Party rule.

China’s image suffered in the wake of its dispute with Google this year over internet freedom, which saw the US web giant shut its Chinese search engine.

The Chinese enjoy greater personal freedom these days, but the web is not yet an area where significant levels of liberty are tolerated.

The government has cautioned other nations to respect how it polices the world’s largest online population: “Within Chinese territory, the internet is under the jurisdiction of Chinese sovereignty. The internet sovereignty of China should be respected and protected.”

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