War on independent Web cafes worries Net users

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 February, 2011, 12:00am

A plan to shut down tens of thousands of independent internet cafes across the mainland is stoking fears that officials are further tightening their grip on the circulation of online information.

Deputy Culture Minister Ouyang Jian rolled out the measure last month, saying the government wanted to get rid of independently run internet cafes.

'We will let more than 80 per cent merge into companies, be professional and enjoy the benefits of branding and scale of operation by the end of 2015,' he told a meeting of officials from across the mainland, the Beijing Morning Post reported.

Ouyang said nearly 140,000 internet cafes provided online access for about 135 million, or 30 per cent, of the country's internet users. The industry generated 88.6 billion yuan (HK$105 billion) of turnover in 2009.

The Ministry of Culture oversees the operation of internet cafes along with the Public Security Bureau and the National Industrial and Commercial Administration Bureau. Thousands of parents have praised recent measures to streamline the industry and limit access to venues by underage schoolchildren, who use them to play computer games.

Forced restructuring of the industry, however, has raised concerns about threats to freedom of expression and the public circulation of information. A well-known blogger based in Changsha, Hunan, who calls himself Zuola says the move will make life more difficult for many internet users who do not want their identities exposed for a wide variety of reasons.

'When dealing with clients who want to remain anonymous and not be subjected to virtual surveillance, some independent internet bars will be more flexible and use others' identity card numbers to register for them,' he said.

However, larger internet cafes or those operating as chains stick more closely to the authorities' rules.

He said a friend who worked for a software firm had told him that management in such venues co-operated closely with local police.

'They record every single detail about what the users have browsed or typed, and provide the information to local police whenever they need it,' he said.

Huang Peihong, vice-chairman of the Dongguan Municipal Internet Cafe Industry Association, said each computer terminal at each internet cafe had to install at least two sets of software before the business was launched, one provided by the Public Security Bureau and the other by the Ministry of Culture.

Internet policemen are responsible for examining the content of messages and filtering out opinions that may be 'unhealthy', such as messages of political dissent.

Huang said that since early last year, anyone wanting to get onto the Web at an internet bar or cafe in Dongguan has had to show their identity card, and have it scanned and sent to the local police bureau before they could go online.

Any violations, including using a fabricated identity or somebody else's to gain access to the internet, could result in a penalty of up to 15,000 yuan, Huang said. The owners of the business would also risk being closed down if another violation was detected within a week's time.

Charles Mok, chairman of the Internet Society's Hong Kong chapter, doubted such rules would be effective.

'There is a market-driven force for the survival of internet bars in backwaters where residents cannot afford a computer,' he said. 'I'm sure that regional officials will undoubtedly have their own ways to strike a balance between local economics and political requirements handed down from above.'

Essential service

There are some 140,000 internet cafes on the mainland

The percentage of mainland internet users who get their online access at these cafes is: 30