China Makes It Official: Big Brother's Watching

China on Thursday strengthened a law to require telecommunications and Internet companies to inform on customers who discuss state secrets, an area so broadly defined that both companies and Chinese citizens have struggled to know just what a state secret is.

The amendments to the Law on Guarding State Secrets, approved by China's top legislature, represent the country's latest move to tighten controls on communications services for the world's largest Internet population. They take effect Oct. 1.

"This is to protect the country," Zhang Yong, director of the Protection of State Secrets' policy and regulation department, told reporters.
Internet and telecom companies are now required to block the transmission of leaks of state secrets, make a record of the activity and tell police and state security departments, and they must delete the information if those authorities request.

In China, state secrets have been so broadly defined that virtually anything maps, GPS coordinates and economic statistics could fall under the category, and officials sometimes use the classification as a way to avoid disclosing information.

The amendments maintain that wide scope, defining state secrets as: "information that concerns state security and interests and, if leaked, would damage state security and interests in the areas of politics, economy and national defense, among others."

The wording has left some experts at a loss to understand what changes the amendments will bring.

"I hope in a few months' time we will see a detailed explanation of state secrets. If there's no detailed explanation, how to implement it?" said Wang Yuquan, chief consultant for research firm Frost and Sullivan in Beijing.

It remains unclear whether Internet and telecom companies are now being asked to act as detectives to hunt down state secrets or simply act at the request of authorities to remove information.

Ambiguity Remains

The amended law is most likely to affect Chinese companies, but it does not address how it applies to companies based overseas. The amendments also don't specify how companies would be punished if they don't comply.

"The phrasing of the law is hard to derive conclusions. it really depends on how it is being executed," said Kan Kaili, a professor at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications.

Communications companies are already often compelled to comply with investigations, so it was not clear how the new amendments will result in significant change.

Chinese leaders appear determined to monitor the flow of information that reaches the world's largest Internet population, with some 384 million users. The government recently also issued new regulations to tighten procedures for domain name registration and to remove websites that are not officially registered.

Human rights activists say the information control is used to stifle any challenge to the Communist Party's grip on power and to identify political activists and punish them.



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