Chinese authorities have recently taken measures to clamp down on the spread of online rumours and regulate cyberspace. These moves are necessary to safeguard citizens' rights and interests, and promote the healthy development of the internet.
The rapid development and popularity of the internet has created new problems in the social landscape. Traditionally, people have been defined to a large extent by their professions, titles or class. Such "labels" create boundaries and exert an unseen pressure on people to help them maintain self-discipline.
In an online community, however, the real and virtual worlds get mixed up. People interact without constraints, or the same sense of identity. In this realm, where "no one knows who I am", users tend to amplify and diversify their activities.
Under such circumstances, the social norms that exist because of relationships often break down, and people are freed from the pressure created by public opinion, moral boundaries and legal sanctions in the real world. The spread of online rumours is one manifestation of this.
While China is still adapting to this new world, internet use is expanding rapidly and an online community has emerged almost out of the blue. Figures show that at the end of 2011 there were more than 500 million internet users on the mainland and 250 million microbloggers. More than 38 per cent of the population had internet access. In this seemingly unfettered world, many people have gone beyond what is deemed acceptable in a traditional society, where law and order prevail.
This has included spreading rumours online and committing web fraud. The State Internet Information Office is estimated to have deleted 210,000 various rumours since mid-March last year.
The disorder and confusion in the online community are seriously jeopardising citizens' rights and interests, causing social chaos and insecurity. As a result, the public has urged the government to draft and implement specific laws to regulate the online community that will benefit society as a whole.
Indeed, there is a consensus around the world that laws are needed to regulate online behaviour. There are already laws in place where internet use has been common for a long time. The US has developed a legal system for internet supervision after years of research. It covers not only legislative, judicial and administrative areas but also federal and state laws. Congress, as the national legislative body, holds hearings, debates and votes on laws, including on the use of telecommunications, which covers the internet. The Supreme Court, federal and appeal courts hear various internet-related cases, and provide timely judicial interpretations. In this way, the US perfects its laws on internet supervision.
The president and his team continually evaluate the situation and adjust national strategies to meet new internet trends and developments. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, for example, the administration made information security a core part of US national strategy. Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have contributed to the International Strategy for Cyberspace. Congress has drafted and enacted many important internet laws, among them the Cybersecurity Act of 2010.
Yet, as revealed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the US government has wantonly resorted to various means to monitor the e-mail and internet traffic of citizens, infringing on their basic rights, in an effort to protect national security.
The internet has developed faster than we could ever have predicted, and so, too, have problems associated with the online community. After studying the issue, China has fought against online rumour-mongering and is now moving to tackle the issue by building a legal framework. Looking at experiences elsewhere and the current situation in China, we should pay attention to the following:
First, we need to understand that the development and popular use of the internet have been epoch-making. Any regulations for the online community should not jeopardise the freedom and rights that the internet brings to ordinary people. As a platform with unlimited data capacity for people to share their views, the internet allows them to spread messages and interact conveniently and instantaneously.
This is a revolution in information dissemination. Also, the internet allows not only expression of opinions from all walks of life, but also disclosure of government information. This can facilitate better communication between the government and its people, and promote social harmony and lasting political stability. Therefore, we have to enact laws to fully protect people's right to express their views on the internet in a legal and proper way.
We have to fight against misinformation and comments intended to incite social unrest and infringe on civil rights, in order to protect citizens' right to express their opinions legally. This should be the main aim of internet legislation.
Second, the internet should serve as a national security shield. As we know, safeguarding national security interests is the primary objective of US internet legislation. However, in China, the internet security situation is very troubling. Hostile forces at home and abroad steal state secrets and important information about citizens via the internet. That endangers national security. They also use the internet to spread false information to stoke tension between the people and the government, while inciting mass disturbances to jeopardise social stability.
Thus, upholding state security, maintaining social stability and allowing people to live in harmony must be an important part of China's internet legislation. In drafting its internet laws, China can learn from the US experience and never allow anyone or any institution to monitor or eavesdrop on ordinary citizens or infringe on their basic rights on the grounds of national security and social stability.
Third, China needs a diverse and multi-layered legal system for cyberspace. The National People's Congress and the State Council should formulate administrative rules and regulations. Government departments should develop specific operational procedures and a sound legal system. This can help promote a stable and harmonious community in cyberspace. And, to keep abreast of changes in the online world, the relevant authorities should, from time to time, publish white papers or assessment reports to address in a timely fashion any social problems that arise, to ensure the sustained and healthy development of cyberspace.
Dong Lishen is a senior researcher at the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council