For­bid­den City in Cy­berspace

With the world’s largest pop­u­la­tion of In­ter­net users, China is re­ported to pur­sue a pol­icy of of­fi­cial on­line mon­i­tor­ing that does not fit into the open global cy­ber en­vi­ron­ment.

Southasia - - Contents - Dr. Omar Fa­rooq Khan

What is the fu­ture of China once it reaches one bil­lion In­ter­net users?

May you live in ex­cit­ing times” is an an­cient Chi­nese say­ing; no truer words could be spo­ken about the coun­try it­self which boasts its civ­i­liza­tion to be thou­sands of years old.

Cov­er­ing ap­prox­i­mately 9.6 mil­lion square kilo­me­tres, China is the world’s sec­ond-largest coun­try by land area, its land­scape is vast and di­verse, rang­ing from forests, flat lands and moun­tain­ous ter­rain to large deserts.

The very men­tion of ‘China’ brings to mind im­ages of im­pe­rial courts and his­tor­i­cal build­ings, the For­bid­den City, the Great Wall of China and the Shaolin Tem­ple. Its po­lit­i­cal his­tory, rang­ing from king­doms com­pris­ing fam­ily dy­nas­ties

to red rev­o­lu­tions, the coun­try has had more than its fair share of ups and downs and has in­deed sur­vived mul­ti­ple tests of time.

To­day China is rapidly ex­pand­ing its eco­nomic and in­dus­trial hori­zons and boasts a huge pop­u­la­tion of in­ter­net users. A re­cent es­ti­mate shows that the coun­try’s in­ter­net pop­u­la­tion has crossed the half bil­lion mark. The coun­try had 538 mil­lion In­ter­net users by mid 2012. It is pro­jected that this num­ber will hit 718 mil­lion in 2013.

It is China’s involvement in all kinds of tech­nol­ogy-ori­ented man­u­fac­tur­ing that has brought this in­crease in its in­ter­net user pop­u­la­tion. But sur­pris­ingly in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion and the eco­nomic/fi­nan­cial boom are not the only driv­ing fac­tors in China’s on­ward march in cy­ber space.

The fig­ures from China In­ter­net Net­work In­for­ma­tion Cen­ter (CNNIC) show that ap­prox 54.9% of its In­ter­net users are male, 57.9% are un­mar­ried, and 51.2% are un­der 25 years old. The ma­jor­ity of In­ter­net users have at least a col­lege di­ploma. Among them, 36.7% are stu­dents and 25.3% en­ter­prise staff.

The Chi­nese largely use the in­ter­net for en­ter­tain­ment and in­for­ma­tion gath­er­ing. With the net be­ing re­ferred to as the “en­ter­tain­ment su­per­high­way”, the Chi­nese go to BBS or web fo­rums to down­load mu­sic, videos, and movies and also use the net as a ma­jor pub­lic fo­rum to freely ex­change their ideas. This is fur­ther re­in­forced by trends show­ing peo­ple go­ing on­line to read the news and to search for in­for­ma­tion.

Although it is said that the Chi­nese tend to write fewer e-mails as com­pared to peo­ple in other parts of the world, they do en­joy other In­ter­net com­mu­ni­ca­tion tools and end up form­ing their on­line com­mu­ni­ties based on dif­fer­ent in­ter­ests. Bul­letin boards on por­tals or chat rooms, in­stant mes­sag­ing groups, blogs and mi­croblogs are very ac­tive in China; more­over photo-shar­ing and so­cial net­work­ing sites are grow­ing rapidly as well.

The in­creas­ing num­ber of In­ter­net users in China has also gen­er­ated a large on­line shop­ping base in the coun­try which some an­a­lysts de­scribe as a fu­ture on­line ad­dic­tion.

It is no sur­prise that Chi­nese in­dul­gence in elec­tronic man­u­fac­tur­ing, es­pe­cially for tools that con­nect to the net (lap­tops, cell phones and palm com­puter de­vices) is see­ing a larger de­mand in the world mar­kets. With a propen­sity for ex­plor­ing the on­line uni­verse, the re­quire­ment for on­line gad­gets for both lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional mar­kets is def­i­nitely mak­ing waves.

One of the most pop­u­lar topics of dis­cus­sion with re­gard to In­ter­net pri­vacy ap­pears to make China its cen­tral point of de­bate. The main con­cern with pri­vacy of In­ter­net users in China is the lack thereof. China has a well-known pol­icy of cen­sor­ship when it comes to the spread of in­for­ma­tion through pub­lic me­dia chan­nels. Cen­sor­ship has been prom­i­nent in main­land China since the com­mu­nist party gained power over 60 years ago. With the devel­op­ment of the In­ter­net, how­ever, pri­vacy be­came more of a prob­lem for the government which has been ac­cused of ac­tively lim­it­ing and edit­ing the in­for­ma­tion that flows into the coun­try via var­i­ous me­dia. The In­ter­net poses a par­tic­u­lar set of is­sues for this type of cen­sor­ship, es­pe­cially when search en­gines are in­volved. Ya­hoo as well as Google have been quoted to have had en­coun­tered some in­ter­est­ing prob­lems af­ter en­ter­ing China in the mid-2000s.

Th­ese prob­lems also lead to warn­ings of loss of busi­ness as well as to a few ar­rests and have been crit­i­cized by for­eign en­ti­ties such as the cre­ators of the Tor anonymity net­work, which was de­signed to cir­cum­vent net­work sur­veil­lance in many coun­tries.

User pri­vacy in China is not as black and white as in other parts of the world. China, re­port­edly, has been ac­cused of hav­ing a much more in­va­sive pol­icy re­gard­ing In­ter­net ac­tiv­ity that in­volves the Chi­nese government. For this rea­son, search en­gines are un­der con­stant pres­sure to con­form to Chi­nese rules and reg­u­la­tions on cen­sor­ship while still at­tempt­ing to keep their in­tegrity.

Most search en­gines op­er­ate dif­fer­ently in China than in other coun­tries. There are two types of in­tru­sions that oc­cur: one con­cerns com­pa­nies pro­vid­ing users with In­ter­net ser­vice and the other con­cerns the pol­icy the Chi­nese government.

Com­pa­nies pro­vid­ing users with In­ter­net ser­vice are based on re­ports that com­pa­nies, such as Ya­hoo are us­ing their ac­cess to the in­ter­net users’ pri­vate in­for­ma­tion to track and mon­i­tor their In­ter­net ac­tiv­ity. The claims made against the Chi­nese government say that the government is in­sis­tent that the In­ter­net-based com­pa­nies should track users’ pri­vate on­line data with­out the user’s knowl­edge. Both sets of claims are rel­a­tively harsh and force for­eign In­ter­net ser­vice providers to de­cide if they value the Chi­nese mar­ket over in­ter­net pri­vacy, thus pre­sent­ing them with some tough choices. Dr. Omar Fa­rooq Khan is an ar­dent be­liever in Jin­nah’s ide­olo­gies for a balanced na­tion-build­ing.

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