04/29/2010, 00.00
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Beijing to tighten screws on the Internet

The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress is vetting a new draft bill that would require Internet providers to report all user data. Experts, including some lawmakers, are critical of the proposal.
Beijing (AsiaNews/Agencies) – China is planning a new state secrets law that will, if passed, require Internet service providers to release information about anyone who uses their networks to leak sensitive material. The draft bill will eventually replace the current State Secrets Law, which took effect 1 May 1989.

The law is being updated to improve online information controls. It will affect netizens, Internet service providers, and cybercafés across the mainland, who will be required to report anyone found leaking a "state secret" online, a potentially capital crime.

“They want to use the this law to force telecommunications and Internet companies to cooperate with the Chinese authorities in exposing the identities of people leaking state secrets,” said Vincent Brossel of the Paris-based press freedom group, Reporters Without Borders.

“The Chinese government has always put pressure on telecoms and Internet companies to provide the authorities with details of dissidents and journalists,” he added.

The amendment was submitted on Monday to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, for a third reading, the final step before it becomes law.

Both old and new versions of the law are vague on what constitutes a state secret. The new draft defines a state secret as information that would damage China’s security or interests in political, economic, defence, and other areas, if it were disclosed. This means just about anything.

For Li Hongkuan, a US-based Internet analyst, the new law “will stop the mouths of some democratic countries like the United States, because China will be able to refute [their criticisms] by saying that what they are doing is legal”.

In recent years, Beijing has tried to fend off criticism of its human rights record, but the “people who will really be hurt by these measures [. . .] are not the rights activists, but ordinary people,” Li said.

“This draft is much better than the last, but there are still some important problems,” National People’s Congress (NPC) delegate Zhu Yongxin told the drafting committee.

In what amounts to an acknowledgement of the problem, he said, “The problem of a too-broad and too-loose definition of what constitutes a state secret has still not been resolved”. In fact, “When a sensitive issue arises, the people are going to want to understand the situation,” but under the draft bill, “the relevant departments” will be able to refuse releasing any information “on the grounds that it constitutes a state secret.”

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