Latest China Web Crackdown Targets ‘Hostile’ Overseas Forces

China is apparently planning to step up its efforts to crack down on online crime.

Wang Chen, head of China’s Information Office of the State Council, has promised severe punishment for those perpetrating crimes over the Internet, which in China includes the distribution of pornography. He specifically mentioned information from “overseas hostile forces” as one of the effort’s main targets.

His statement reflects China’s attempt to grapple with the increasing level of Web access available to its citizens and its government’s desire to censor undesirable content.

The Dark Side of Communications

The availability of Internet access in China is skyrocketing — by end of June 2009, the country had 338 million Internet users, up 40 percent from December 2008. This grew to 404 million by March.

Just as it has in other countries, access to the Internet has led to an accompanying rise in cybercrime.

In Hubei Province, for example, local authorities announced Sunday that they had smashed a case in which a suspect named only as “Xiong” sold more than US$200,000 worth of fake medication over the Internet to more than 3,000 customers nationwide.

A senior official said online sales of fake medications have been rampant of late, and nabbing the criminals has been difficult because they cover their tracks well on the Internet.

Beijing would intensify its crackdown on online crimes and severely punish those involved in online porn, gambling and fraud, Wang stated. More than 5,500 suspects were arrested in China’s crackdown on online crime last year, he said.

Crime and Politics

The task of fighting crime online, is often quite tricky.

“Cybercrime is a domestic problem, but there are political constraints on the Chinese authorities’ ability to deal with it,” James Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told TechNewsWorld. “I’ve heard from Chinese officials that they have a big problem internally.”

Cracking down on online crime will also involve cracking down on pirated software, which is rampant in the country. This is complicated by political questions, especially as Western companies have been pressuring Beijing to enforce IP laws.

As they grapple with these issues, the Chinese authorities are also trying not to stifle indigenous creativity and battle what they consider technological hegemony, Lewis pointed out. The Chinese feel that the West is leveraging its advanced technology to stifle growth within developing nations. They call this “technological hegemony.”

Further, Chinese politics is an incredibly complex beast. “There are all sorts of influences and competition that is much more diffuse,” Lewis explained. “It’s not just the Communist party and the central government running things.”

Like the governments of other countries, China is wrestling with the problem of controlling unwanted Internet content. Like the Chinese, Australia and Italy have already said they may block certain content, for example.

Battling the Foreigners?

In his remarks, Wang noted that his country’s anticybercrime efforts included monitoring and blocking harmful information on the Internet to, among other things, prevent overseas hostile forces from infiltrating through the Internet.

Recently, the Chinese government has faced off with the U.S. government over the search giant Google. After attackers hacked Google’s systems — allegedly to obtain emails sent and received by Tibet freedom advocates — the company opted to stop censoring its own search results for Chinese users.

Some Chinese companies have also apparently had to deal with across-the-border attacks. For example, hackers reportedly broke into servers running one of the websites overseen by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group last month. The site, Aliexpress, hosts bulk sales of Chinese goods to buyers in the United States. Its servers in both China and the U.S. were hit.

No information was stolen, but Wu Hao, head of public relations at the Alibaba Group, said the hackers might be working for either foreign trade protectionist groups or the company’s rivals.

It’s not yet clear whether China is responding to this or focusing on online porn and fraud from abroad. “The information is unconfirmed,” Guobin Yao, an associate professor at Columbia University, told TechNewsWorld.

Perhaps Beijing is just going through growing pains as Web access spreads throughout China. “There’s a lot more freedom and discussion now,” CSIS’ Lewis said. “The main problems the government faces are commercial competition and political concerns.”

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