Chinas Internet Operators Told To Clear Online Smut

Beijing | Updated: Sep 27 2004, 05:30am hrs
Authorities have given Chinas Internet and telecom operators, regulators and police a deadline: clear the country of online smut before October 1, the National Day holiday marking the birth of the Peoples Republic.

The task force created to carry out this peoples war against electronic pornography, involving at least five ministries and government departments, has responded to the decree with zeal but so far, with limited success.

The crackdown began in earnest in mid-June with the opening of a Web site where citizens can report offending porn sites. Since then, authorities have shut down about 700 of the countrys estimated 1,000 pornographic Web sites and arrested more than 300 people.

Those found guilty can be punished with life imprisonment under new regulations if they are found to be operating sites that have received more than 250,000 visitors. But experts say even such stern measures are failing to root out a hugely profitable product in a vast land with rapidly developing computer and communications technology.

However firm the governments resolve, it has limited means for dealing with pornography, said Will Zhang, research and publications director at the United States Information Technology Office here. The government can arrest people, block Web sites and censor Web searches, but it doesnt have advanced enough technical methods to effectively censor online porn, he said.

That has meant that the countrys Internet and telecom operators have been pushed onto the front lines of this war on vice.

Until recently, telecom companies such as China Mobile and China Telecom, as well as major Web portals such as Nasdaq-listed Sohu.com and Sina Corp., were effectively accomplices to the porn industry. They reaped windfalls in fees for hosting many of the Web sites, phone-sex services, text messaging and handset game providers the government now seeks to shut down.

With credit cards still not widespread in China, one of the most common ways of collecting fees for Internet content has been through mobile phone text messages. Users wishing to enter a paid porn site would enter their mobile phone number on the site. A password would be sent to the mobile phone, and the subscription fee would be charged directly to the phone bill.

Both the mobile operators and the portals took a cut until last spring, when the government barred them from collecting fees for porn providers. While earlier government appeals had been ignored, the telecoms and portals are being quite cooperative now, since there are clear penalties for not cooperating, said Zhang.

At the same time, the countrys banking regulator has required banks to scrutinize their online transaction services for traces of filth, and to freeze the accounts of any clients found to be involved in pornography.

But the porn industry is far from crippled by the government assault. I think its a gesture, but its limited in effectiveness, said Duncan Clark, managing director of Beijing-based telecom consultancy BDA.

The government can always put pressure on the larger companies to cooperate theyre also interested in protecting their brands. But there are always the smaller fly-by-night operations that will pop up, he said.

Providers have also employed linguistic creativity, flipping the order of the characters for the Chinese word for porn, seqng, to create the code word qingse.

On a popular search engine, seqing yields hundreds of news items about the governments crackdown, while qingse leads to hundreds of porn sites.

Many such sites a large number of which are based in Taiwan and Hong Kong are blocked in the mainland, but theres still a sea of Chinese-language and foreign sites available. And savvy Web surfers also use proxy servers and special software to reach sites they want to view.

At the same time, porn providers have developed new ways of billing to circumvent the restrictions on banks and phone services.

Many Web sites are now reverting to more low-tech payment methods, like simple bank transfers and wiring money through the postal service, Zhang said. Besides, much of Chinas online porn is spread not through pay sites, but interactive services. Its really difficult to police this stuff, said Clark.

While chat rooms routinely censor sex-related language, he said, theres only so much the technology can prevent when it comes to something like sharing movies.

JASON SUBLER / NY TIMES