Chinese police to set up shop at major Web companies
The government says it will help catch "criminal behavior online" more quickly -- though increased censorship could be the actual result.
Former CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Some of China's largest Internet companies will soon have new office mates: the police.
The Chinese government will open "network security offices" in some of the country's largest Internet companies to "catch criminal behavior online at the earliest possible point," China's Ministry of Public Safety announced on Wednesday, according to Reuters, which obtained a statement from the agency.
The government agency did not say which companies will be required to welcome these online security police into their offices, but it did say it will focus its efforts on "important website and Internet firms."
The Ministry of Public Safety is pitching the plan as an opportunity for it to find criminals more quickly. But it may be viewed by some as part of the government's ongoing attempts at censoring content on the Web.
China has some of the most stringent Web censorship policies in the world, blocking access to everything from Google to Facebook to YouTube. It typically bans Web services that allow for free expression and access to information not controlled by the government -- items that have been construed by the ruling party as dangerous to public safety. China has often called indictments of its government "toxic rumors" that could ultimately degrade the integrity of the Internet.
"The rapid advance of this flood has also brought 'mud and sand' -- the spread of rumors -- and to nurture a healthy Internet, we must thoroughly eradicate the soil in which rumors grow," Xinhua, the mouthpiece for the country's ruling Communist party, wrote in 2012. "Concocting rumors is itself a social malady, and the spread of rumors across the Internet presents a massive social threat."
Having law enforcement physically present in Internet company offices, however, is a first. The move follows a law passed by the Chinese parliament last month that increases government control over the economy, the environment and technology. While part of the law aims at protecting personal information from foreign hackers, it also gives the Chinese government greater ability to legally censor comments and user accounts.
The Chinese government's censorship of the Web has a serious impact on both companies and citizens. China has a massive, growing Web population that companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google would all like to capitalize on. Meanwhile, China's Web users, including those who are younger and not so keen on the censorship, find many popular social-media sites and online services blocked.
Chinese social-media sites like Sina Weibo, which is essentially a mashup of Twitter and Facebook, claim to let users freely express themselves but have come under fire from critics who say the sites bow to government pressure. Many Chinese sites are quick to censor content or ban users entirely for minor infractions that could cast the government in a negative light.
Despite those concessions, the Chinese government has come down on its domestic companies, including Sina Weibo, for being slow to react to potentially inflammatory commentary on its site. In March 2014, China cracked down on online giant Tencent's messaging app WeChat for allowing accounts hosted by journalists and columnists to include potentially negative opinions on the government.
Neither Sina Weibo nor Tencent immediately responded to a request for comment.