"With the introduction of the Internet, news reaches China from a multiplicity of sources enabling people to form opinions, analyse and share information and to communicate in ways previously unknown in China," according to Amnesty International (AI). And therein lies Beijing's problem. Although spirited debate was common with then advent of the Internet, the potential of the Internet to spread new ideas quickly led alarmed authorities to try to control its use.
"Since the commercialisation of the Internet in China in 1995, China has become one of the fastest-growing Internet markets in the world," AI reports. "The number of domestic Internet users is doubling every six months and thousands of websites are being launched. In June 2002 the number of Internet users had reached almost 46 million and experts believe that within the next four years China is likely to become the largest Internet market in the world. Since 1995 more than 60 rules and regulations have been introduced covering the use of the Internet."
Beijing has imposed all sorts of restrictions such as closing Internet cafes, blocking e-mails, search engines, foreign news and politically-sensitive websites, and have now introduced a filtering system for web searches on a list of prohibited key words and terms, according to AI.
After a fire in an Internet cafe in Beijing in June this year, AI says that Beijing closed thousands of Internet cafes and demanded that those allowed to reopen do so only after installing filtering software to block websites considered "politically sensitive" or "reactionary." The software prevents access to 500,000 various foreign websites.
Violators of these draconian regulations can face imprisonment and even death. AI says it has compiled records of 33 prisoners of conscience who have been detained for using the Internet to circulate or download information. Two have died while in custody, apparently as the result of torture or other forms of ill treatment, AI charges.
In a news release on their new report: "Deadly Web - China's Internet Users at Risk of Arbitrary Detention, Torture and Execution," Amnesty International reported that they have adopted 33 Jailed Individuals as "New Prisoners of Conscience."
According to the press release Amnesty International has "called on the Chinese authorities to release all those currently detained or jailed for using the Internet to peacefully express their views or share information. In a report launched today, 'State Control of the Internet in China,' Amnesty International records the cases of 33 people who have been detained or imprisoned for offences related to their use of the Internet. They range from political activists and writers to members of unofficial organisations, including the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
"Internet users are the latest group to be ensnared in China's deadly web of arrest, detention and torture, and US corporations increasingly facilitate this repression," said T. Kumar, Amnesty International USA's Advocacy Director for Asia. "China's human rights record is plumbing new depths as authorities jail prisoners of conscience faster than diplomatic efforts win token releases. The December 16 resumption of the US-China human rights dialogue must be preceded by the release of such prisoners as Rebiya Kadeer, and it must be followed by US pressure for an end to this widening crackdown on human rights."
"Two of those detained for Internet-related offences have died in custody, apparently as a result of torture or ill-treatment at the hands of the police. Both are members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which was banned [..] in July 1999. One of the longest sentences has been passed against a former police officer, Li Dawei, who has been sentenced to 11 years in prison for downloading articles from Chinese democracy websites abroad. All his appeals have been turned down. In extreme cases, individuals who publish information on the Internet that is considered to be a 'state secret' could even be sentenced to death.
"Internet users are increasingly caught up in a tight web of rules restricting their fundamental human rights. Anyone surfing the Internet could potentially be at risk of arbitrary detention and imprisonment," Amnesty International said. "Everyone who is detained purely for peacefully publishing their views or other information on the Internet or for accessing certain websites is a prisoner of conscience and they should be released immediately and unconditionally."
In late August China blocked access to the Google Internet search engine for a brief period, diverting users to local Chinese search engines instead. In recent weeks, Beijing has shifted tactics again, opening up some previously blocked websites, but making it impossible for users to open documents on those sites that relate to China. The Ministry of State Security has reportedly installed tracking devices on Internet service providers to monitor individual E-mail accounts, and all Internet cafes are required to register and inform the police about their customers.
"As the Internet industry continues to expand in China, the government continues to tighten controls on on-line information. These have included the filtering or blocking of some foreign websites, the creation of special Internet police, the blocking of search engines and actions to shut down websites that post information on corruption or articles critical of government," Amnesty International said.
The Chinese authorities have also forced Internet companies to take greater responsibility for policing the web. A "Public Pledge on Self-Discipline" was introduced in August 2002 under which signatories agree not to post "pernicious" information that may "jeopardise state security, disrupt social stability, contravene laws and spread superstition and obscenity." The pledge has been signed by more than 300 companies, including by the People's Republic of China operations of the US corporation Yahoo!
Amnesty International also raised concerns that some overseas companies have reportedly sold technology to China, which has been used by the Chinese authorities to censor the Internet.
"As China's role as an economic and trading partner grows, multinational companies have a particular responsibility to ensure that their technology is not used to violate fundamental human rights," Amnesty International said.
Amnesty International urges the government to review regulations and other measures restricting freedom of expression over the Internet for compliance with international standards.
Source: Amnesty International, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue SE, Washington, D.C. 2003
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