Chinese authorities crack down on Net cafes

Chinese authorities have shut down over 17,000 Internet cafes around China and another 28,000 cafes will go through a reformation process over the next few months, Wen Hui Bao, a Shanghai-based newspaper, reported on Tuesday.

Leading the crackdown is the Chinese Ministry of Information Industry (MII), which is working with the police department and several other law enforcement agencies, the newspaper said. The closures were the result of government efforts to clamp down on Internet cafes with improper management and operating practices, Wen Hui Bao reported. There are a total of 94,000 Net cafes in China, the report said.

In order to become legitimate operators, cafes have to register themselves with the MII and install security management software, which would allow authorities to monitor the cafes by recording the particulars of surfers and journal the sites visited, which could help curb the "improper" use of the Internet, the report said.

According to the newspaper report, 20.5 percent of all Chinese Internet users or 4.52 million people, most of whom are students, access the Internet through cybercafes. If not monitored and given guidance on proper use of the Internet, the student would use the Internet for unsavory activities, the report said. As a result, the Chinese authorities have also devised an identity card which surfers at Net cafes would need in order to access the Internet. This card would then monitor the sites that they visit, the report said.

With the crackdown, the Chinese authorities hope to address two social issues -- to block visits to illegal sites and to restrict "non-adults" from entering Net cafes during times outside holidays, the report said.

"There is an age limit for Internet cafes (in China) and they are not allowed to be opened (within) a certain distance from schools," said Matthew McGarvey, Beijing-based Internet research manager at International Data Corp. (IDC). "The Chinese government has been cracking down severely on Internet access points regardless of whether students were improperly using the Internet or not."

China's stance when clamping down on Internet activity comes as no surprise, as it has always taken a rather heavy-handed approach on controlling access to media, McGarvey said, adding that Chinese news regulators had delayed coverage of the Sept. 11 bombing of the World Trade Center, "so that they could put a spin on it."

With Internet cafes sprouting up across the country, it would mean that the public would be able to gain access to news and information more easily as there is "no freer form of news than from the Internet," and the Chinese authorities would therefore prefer to have more control, McGarvey said.

Such a highly regulated environment makes the Internet market in China difficult to capitalise on, said McGarvey. However, he said that such laws do not contradict the requisites for China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO).

"If businesses are looking to engage China and Chinese users, they need to be operating within the confines of China's internal regulatory structure," McGarvey said. "The regulatory structure in China has a solid base and the laws are spelt out in writing so the government acts upon it."

According to Duncan Clark, managing director of BDA China Ltd., a Beijing-based Internet consultancy, several cafes that were closed in the recent crackdown were game arcades. "It's hard to get an arcade license, so many posed as Net cafes," he said. However, the government's initiative to clean up Internet cafes has resulted in PCs in cafes being confiscated, with gaming being one aspect, he said.

"Just as in the West, there are valid concerns about cybercafes being a venue for illicit activities," said Clark, adding that there are worries about pornography and about Web-based e-mail services being able to propagate politically incorrect messages.

However, the Chinese government's actions are not as monolithic as they are perceived to be, said Clark. "There's not really a coordinated action," he said. "Unlike the (coordinated) action against the Fa Lun Gong (cult group), there are a lot of laws regulating Internet use, but things are not as clearly spelt out in China."

Generally, the Net cafe crackdown is aimed at stopping people from propagating things over the Web. "It's not yet reached a police state," Clark said. "If anything, there's not enough control with what's going on... with the garbage that going on with lots of smaller sites."

The Chinese government need to keep up with their law enforcement efforts in order not to be seen as weak, Clark said. "Regulatory bodies have to show progress, and the idea is to hit hard in one area and so people will be obliged to be good citizens."

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