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In China, sophisticated filters keep the Internet near sterile

SHANGHAI, China—To get an inkling of how China controls and sanitizes the Internet experience, it helps to step into any Internet cafe in Shanghai.

Each incoming user must give a name and address, then hand over identification to a clerk. Closed-circuit TV cameras monitor from overhead. Every computer terminal is loaded with software to track all activity. If a user heads toward a prohibited Web site, cafe employees know right away.

"A blinking light goes off," said Lin Fusheng, owner of the sprawling Shigong Network cafe, off Shanghai's main pedestrian walkway.

The software also alerts authorities at a Shanghai municipal security post across town, and inspectors eventually may drop in to check on the infractions.

These are only a few of the security measures that have created what some call a Great Fire Wall around the world's fastest-growing population of Internet users. China pours huge resources into filtering online content, stifling anything that might threaten Communist Party rule.

Sixty-four Internet users languish in prison for their writings. China blocks access to tens of thousands of Web sites, restricts Web searches and demands that all domestic Web sites and Web logs register with the government or face closure.

Even so, Internet usage flourishes. About 100 million Chinese are regular Internet users, and the number is climbing rapidly. Drawn by gaming, Web logs, online forums and news sites, urban Chinese view the medium as a livelier alternative to tightly controlled newspapers and television newscasts.

"Certainly, people cannot access information as freely as in the U.S.," said Yan Xuetong, a professor at Tsinghua University. "But it's much better than without it."

In the 1990s, China veered from the path of other authoritarian nations, such as Cuba, where access to computers is severely restricted, or Saudi Arabia and Iran, which ban Web sites of a sexual or political nature. Instead, China saw the Internet as a necessary vehicle for economic growth—but one that had to be tightly controlled.

So China decided to funnel all Internet traffic through six hubs, or electronic backbones, to maximize monitoring capabilities. All Internet traffic passes through the hubs. In addition, multiple layers of security filter where one browses. Thousands of routers—many bought from U.S. companies such as Cisco Systems—are programmed to block users from visiting certain global Internet sites. Other software bars users from Web pages containing certain key words or intercepts e-mail.

Internet searches inevitably yield "error" messages when they're for information on the banned Falun Gong religious movement, Tibet or Taiwan independence, the Dalai Lama, anti-communism, the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and corruption in China.

If a user searches for such topics, he or she is put in a virtual "penalty box" that temporarily locks up a computer's browser. A second infraction triggers a longer lock-up.

"If you type my name into Google, you'll get a lot of links," said Yu Jie, a writer who's critical of China's political system. "When I click on one of the essays I wrote years ago, I can get it. But if I try to get one of the speeches I made in the States (last year), it freezes up. The whole thing freezes. I have to reboot the computer."

Many Chinese Internet users barely notice the restrictions; they're grateful to have expanded sources of information and entertainment. Millions of Web sites exist in Chinese, satisfying the estimated 80 percent of users who stick only to regulated Chinese-language sites and rarely venture into the freewheeling global Internet.

But advocates of an unrestricted Internet say China has dashed hopes that pro-democracy, human rights and religious groups might find an avenue of free expression. Instead, they say, China is a model for other countries bent on censorship.

"Its filtering system has become at once more refined and comprehensive over time, building a matrix of controls that stifles access to information deemed illegitimate by authorities," said a study released April 14 by the OpenNet Initiative, a partnership among scholars at Harvard Law School, the University of Toronto and Cambridge University.

China's rulers foster the impression of an all-encompassing ability to monitor Internet usage. Arrests of Internet "subversives" are widely reported. And no one denies persistent but unconfirmed reports that as many as 30,000 government employees toil at monitoring Internet traffic.

"They want you to think that every bit of your activity is tracked. That's what has everybody nervous. If they say something in a chat room, will they get in trouble?" said Anne Stevenson-Yang, who until recently headed the U.S. Information Technology Office, a nonprofit trade group in Beijing representing U.S. information technology businesses operating in China.

As Internet usage explodes, billion-dollar businesses have emerged, offering gateways, news sites, auctions and other services. Private Internet tycoons, reliant on government approval and fearful of criminal prosecution, ensure that online postings don't broach sensitive topics. They hire online moderators with lightning-fast fingers on the "delete" key.

Legal regulation of the Internet is extraordinarily complex, and the entities entrusted with sterilizing the virtual world overlap and even compete.

The state doesn't even acknowledge that it filters and censors the Internet, and it offers no lists of banned sites or procedures for lifting a ban. But experts say at least 12 ministries or agencies, as well as the party's Central Propaganda Department and the state secrets bureau, sanitize the Internet. Hundreds of cities operate Internet control units.

Last year, a research team at the University of California at Berkeley found that the operator of China's most popular instant messaging service, known as QQ, embedded software in the program that blocked messages containing numerous key words.

Among the 1,000 or so banned words or phrases on QQ are "democracy," "freedom," "dictatorship," "riot," "traitor" and "human rights."

Other techniques to control the Internet are more subtle—such as a recent revelation by the Southern Weekend newspaper that some municipal governments hire Internet commentators to "guide" opinion in chat rooms and "accentuate the good."

Some entrepreneurs say the censorship is more flexible than it might appear.

Fang Xindong, owner and founder of a popular Web host, http://www.blogchina.com, said he grew frustrated in May 2004 that he couldn't get online access to the San Jose Mercury News, a Knight Ridder newspaper. So he went to the Beijing City Hall information office, one of the lower-level entities controlling Internet access.

"I tried to reason with them that it's a distinguished newspaper in Silicon Valley," Fang recalled. Weeks later, he found he could access the site.

Attempts to reach some foreign Web sites, such as Amnesty International, Time Magazine and the British Broadcasting Corp., trigger a "The Page Cannot be Displayed" message. Other foreign sites face sporadic blocking, here for a few days, gone for a month.

A country of 1.3 billion people, China has only 42 million computers. Relatively few people have computers in their homes, so many users rely on the estimated 100,000 or so Internet cafes scattered around the country.

Shanghai's Shigong Network cafe is full of young men playing online games. Some 85 percent of China's Internet users are male, mostly under 30.

At any given moment, 2 million Chinese are gaming online. One leading portal, NetEase, says that as many as 600,000 users have played its most popular game concurrently.

Lin, the cafe owner, charges 25 cents an hour for computer use and says it's one of the cheapest forms of entertainment.

The popularity of gaming leads some Internet entrepreneurs to downplay talk that Internet censorship stifles broader political debate in China. They argue that few people are interested in serious political content anyway.

Still, officials clearly fear the power of online forums, which already have hounded some incompetent or corrupt cadres from power.

Last September, authorities shut down a forum with 30,000 users at Peking University. Last month, they restricted China's most popular forum, an intellectual debate hosted by Tsinghua University, shutting out non-students and requiring students to post messages using their real names.

"My opinion is that the majority of people are interested in politics," said Yu, the writer and online commentator. "But they don't have access to information, so their interest is suppressed."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-INTERNET

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