China today announced a plan to build a countrywide intranet called the China Wide Web that would give its people access to the Net, but exclude content that the government's watchful eye deems inappropriate.
The China Internet Corporation this week cut a deal with Bay Networks to build a the intranet that will eventually link 50 cities across China. Beginning next month, the network will connect Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, and the southern city of Guangzhou.
Under the deal, Bay Networks will provide routers, network design, and network management software for the China Wide Web. China Internet has also partnered with Sun Microsystems for the construction of the network. Although the network will have outside links to the global Internet, information will be closely monitored by the Chinese government.
The deal represents China's desire to modernize its communication infrastructure while continuing to bar any outside influences that could disturb the delicate social balance within its borders.
But China may be in a catch-22. Either China Internet will find it impossible to keep outside influences from infiltrating the China Wide Web, or the restrictions will work but undermine the popularity of the network with users.
The fight to keep Western influences out may have already begun. Media giants Ziff-Davis and Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation both launched Chinese-language Web sites this week in an effort to establish an early toehold in the Chinese Internet market.
News Corporation has launched ChinaByte, a technology and information service, while Ziff-Davis has created ZDNet China, a Chinese-language version of its ZDNet technology news Web site. Both companies have existing investments in print media operations in China.
But whether the ZDNet China and ChinaByte will be free from government control is open to question. Both sites are jointly developed by People's Daily, the official newspaper of the Chinese government.
For online information not developed by officials, the government has other ways planned to prevent banned content, whether it be pornographic or "subversive" political material.
Already, the government has vowed to punish users that transmit information that is "harmful to the security of the nation," a definition that includes pornography. Last August, the Shanghai Post and Telecommunications Administration Bureau, the agency that oversees Internet access in the country, insisted that all Internet users register with the government or face stiff penalties.
If China's strategy to repress Internet content works, the Web may become just another mouthpiece for the government, according to David Sobel, an attorney for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"It's not clear how a controlled system like China's would function," Sobel said. "If the Chinese succeed in creating a closed, control network, they really will not be providing their population with the benefits of this technology. All they'll be creating a digital form of existing formal government publications."
Some analysts believe that censorship could seriously impede the appeal of the Net in China. According to a report by Jupiter Communications: "China Internet Corporation will closely monitor its connection to the global the Internet. As a result it is unlikely that the Net in China will become as popular as it is in other countries."
The Jupiter report also suggests that economic factors have slowed the acceptance of the Internet so far in China. The country currently has about 100,000 computers connected to the Net. The average cost of Net access is $73 dollars per month for a 9600 baud modem connection for 40 hours; the average Chinese office worker makes only $250 per month.
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