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China Opens Access to Some Western News Websites - 2002-05-17

China has apparently stopped blocking Internet access to the websites of some western news agencies. Other foreign news websites are still off-limits to Chinese Internet users.

Patrons at Internet cafes in Beijing and Shanghai are now able to get access to the websites of The Washington Post, CNN, The Associated Press and Reuters news service. Those news websites have long been blocked on local Chinese Internet connections.

Chinese authorities have not said why the sites have been made accessible or how long the new access will last.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., monitors information technology issues that affect civil liberties. The group's general counsel, David Sobel, welcomes the increased flow of information into China over the Internet.

"But I think it's important to note that the Chinese government continues to maintain a fair amount of control over the medium," he said. "So, it really remains to be seen whether this is the beginning of a new policy or really just a very limited change in policy."

Other foreign news websites - including Time magazine, the Voice of America, the BBC and Taiwanese newspapers - are still blocked to Chinese Internet users.

China blocks access to websites it considers subversive or especially sensitive by installing screening software at the stations where Internet cables enter China. But many Chinese have been able to gain access to banned Web sites indirectly by connecting to other computers that have installed special software - allowing users to visit Internet sites anonymously.

Mr. Sobel says this is part of an ongoing technological struggle, not just in China.

"There are other governments around the world who, for various reasons, seek to limit access to particular kinds of information," he said. "And in fact, the United States government has enacted a law that requires public libraries in the United States to use blocking software to protect children from sexually explicit materials, so this technology is very widespread. There are obviously different types of information that are considered sensitive by different governments."

An estimated 30 million Chinese regularly use the Internet. Many of them log on at some 200,000 Internet cafes throughout the country.

The government has strict rules requiring Internet bars to keep records of the websites their users visit and to report any suspicious activity. Thousands of cafes have been shut down for failing to install monitoring software on their computers or for violating other Internet-related regulations.