In an attempt to combat what it views as illicit activities, the Chinese government announced Tuesday it will deploy two virtual police officers to patrol the Internet, according to reports from the state-run China Daily.
The cartoon cops, one male and one female, will hit theirbeat Saturday and will be on duty 24/7, safeguarding Beijing’s gateway Websites and accepting cybercrime complaints concerning online pornography andother so-called malicious content.
Fending off objectionable content is the duty of the Chinese government and its citizens, according to Zhao Hongzhi, deputy chief of China’s Ministry of Information Industry’s bureau of Internet Surveillance Center. The animated cops, he said, will protect Web surfers from content that does public harm and disrupts social order, as well as listen to suggestions of Internet users.
Chinese authorities have long censored the Internet by creating a so-calledGreat Wall, or information gateway, comprised of a series of servers thatact as a barrier between China’s Internet and the Internet at large,according to a report from the China Digital Times. The gateways allow thegovernment to monitor information flow and send out fake TCP (transmission control protocol) packages to cut the TCP connections when certain keywords are detected.
Serve and Protect
The cyber coppers, designed by Sohu.com, will appear in a variety of guises,cruising on motorcycles, riding in police cars or on foot and arriving at the bottom of computer screens every 30 minutes to remind Beijing’s 5.46 million Websurfers of Internet security.
The virtual police will initially patrol 13 major news portals, such asSohu.com and Sina.com. Later, by the end of the year, the two officers will monitor all Web sites and online forums based in Beijing.
The city’s residents will be able to report undesirable content byclicking on the virtual officers, which will take them to an InternetSurveillance Center Web site through which they can report illegalactivities and harmful information, according to Zhao.
Valid complaints will receive a call back from the real-world cops 30minutes after the initial report was received. The police will only actagainst residents who have broken the law and take action against virtualassets and Internet accounts, officials said. They will also deal with emergencies.
Internet users in Shenzen, a city in the Guangdong Province, have been underthe watchful eye of their own cyber cops, “Jingjing” and “Chacha,” sinceJanuary 2006, according to the China Digital Times. TheJing Cha, Chinese for “police,” have patrolled Web sites and Web forums inShenzen, educating residents about the country’s many laws and legalregulations regarding Net surfing.
In April, the government announced plans to broaden the use of its cartooncops to create a virtual force that would symbolize the government’smonitoring of all major Web sites and online forums, according to a statemedia report. Chinese officials, the paper said, were pleased with theofficers’ successful deployment in Shenzen in rooting out “harmful materialand information” and “illicit activities” on the Internet.
Aware They’re Watching
“In a perverse way, they may be from our view nothelpful in the sense they are positive, but at least people then are clearlyaware and have been informed that their electronic activities are beingmonitored and they can exercise whatever cautions they see fit,” Sophie Richardson, deputy director, Asia division at Human Rights Watch, told TechNewsWorld.
“But of course this further impinges on users’ freedom of speech on theNet because of course people obviously say different things when they knowthey are being monitored and when they know people have been sent to jailfor having conversations about certain subjects online,” she added.
Chinese authorities probably launched the program because othermethods are losing their effectiveness, Shawn McCarthy, an analyst at IDC,told TechNewsWorld.
“My guess is that people have found work-arounds to the governmentcensorship technology efforts,” he explained. “Thus the government islooking for citizen help to identify and report content that the governmentdeems problematic.”
With its mix of liberals, conservatives and moderates, China’s society willhave a varied response to this new initiative, he said, with some viewing the cyberpolice patrol as a form of protection. Others, he continued, will see it asintrusive, and a large number will not have an opinion either way.
“But in general, as Internet connectivity brings more political ideas andalternative into a community, people eventually will grow more tolerant ofdivergent ideas and less tolerant of attempts to limit information,” hecontended.
With manifold methods available in China to circumvent the government’scarefully constructed layers of censorship, McCarthy said, the virtualofficers will only be partially successful in curbing pornography and other content the government seeks to block.
“It’s really just an online form that citizens can fill out, with a cuteicon. It’s probably no more effective than any other button or link,” hepointed out. “There are multiple ways to bypass most types of censorship. Itdepends on how hard people want to work in order to do so.”