China internet controls are a step backward
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Those wanting to believe that China's new leaders are sincere about pledges for reform have had their optimism jolted by a further tightening of internet controls. Newly approved rules require users to register with their real names when signing up for access, a phone service or publishing online. Access to some of the leading virtual private networking (VPN) services to get around the "Great Firewall" of restrictions have of late been disabled or slowed. Stifling free expression and being isolationist are no way for a government that claims to be socially and globally responsible to act.
Authorities say the restrictions are to protect online data and safeguard the public interest; critics say they will also deter free expression and the exposing of corruption. The blocking of VPNs has frustrated users who want to view banned sites, but companies who use the services to safeguard information and data and foreign credit card holders have also been affected. Both moves follow Liu Qibao's taking over as the nation's propaganda chief. His recent call for "more research" into the strengthening of internet restrictions was in marked contrast to new Communist Party leader and president-in-waiting Xi Jinping's promises of greater openness and transparency. Given the importance of the internet to global business, creativity and innovation - in addition to its benefits to unveil wrongdoing, inform, educate and entertain - only negativity can come from its use as a political tool.
China can be proud that up to 600 million of its citizens have access to the internet. With on-line business threatened by burgeoning criminal activity, any effort to strengthen protection is welcome. But connectivity has limited worth when it is coupled with overbearing determination to keep people ignorant of public information that is deemed sensitive. The ever-tightening firewall already blocks networks like Facebook and Twitter and websites, news reports, blog postings and search terms that the party does not like. Targeting VPNs, which use overseas proxy servers and data encryption, and social networks, takes the measures a step too far.
Restricting information damages legitimate business. Whether the latest measures are in the name of showing who is in charge or a concerted effort to silence critics or stifle debate is immaterial. China has much to lose by isolating its citizens and companies and foreign corporations and business people. It has everything to gain by scrapping its internet barriers.