There is growing concern in the United States about China's efforts to censor Internet access for Chinese users. This concern has translated into legislation introduced in Congress that calls for the creation of a Global Internet Freedom office to fight Web censors - in China and other countries, where access to the Internet is controlled.
For Internet users in China, trouble with the government is always a possibility.
Bill Xia is a Chinese immigrant to the United States and president of Dynamic Internet Technology, a small U.S.-based company that provides technical services to help get Chinese-language e-mail to people in China. Mr. Xia says the Internet is increasingly becoming a factor in Chinese government harassment and arrest of dissidents. "Last year, there were more than 10 arrests in China for distributing forbidden information," said Bill Xia. "This will create fear among the public. For the general public in China, they are now gradually realizing the existence of censorship consciously."
Mr. Xia says he believes the Chinese government has more than 30,000 employees who specialize in Internet censorship.
Lin Hai, a New York-based computer scientist from Shanghai, said he was excited by the Internet in the mid-1990's, because he thought it was a medium that was not subject to central government control. But he recounts what happened to him after he provided assistance to a U.S. -based student newsletter that promoted democracy and freedom of information. "So, I did something to help the organization, especially collecting the information of China Internet users, so that they can promote their newsletters to more receivers," said Lin Hai. "For that activity, I was arrested by the Chinese government. The date was the year 1998, March 25. As reported, I was the first victim of China censorship on Internet."
Mr. Lin was sentenced to two years in prison. He was quietly released six months early, in September 1999, and now lives in New York.
It is cases such as Mr. Lin's that prompted U.S. congressmen last month to introduce draft legislation, called the Global Internet Freedom Act.
Among other things, the bill calls for the establishment of the Office of Global Internet Freedom, which would work to counter Internet jamming by governments considered repressive. The office also would expedite the development and deployment of technology to protect Internet freedom around the world.
Paul Baranowski is the chief architect for the Peekabooty project, which is aimed at creating a product that can bypass censorship on the World Wide Web. He says China tops the list of national Internet censors. "China is the worst offender - possibly ties with Saudi Arabia," said Paul Baranowski. "The other countries that are censored - Burma and Cuba - even Australia. There's about 20, 21 countries that censor their Internet, last time I checked."
He said the Peekabooty project could be used by individual Chinese personal computer users, even if they have no special knowledge of Internet technology.
Avi Rubin, the co-founder of a Web publishing system that is aimed at providing publishers with anonymity, says he thinks people trying to find ways to defeat Internet censorship are fighting an endless battle. "I believe there's an arms race between censorship and censorship-circumvention, because if you tell me what you're doing to censor, I can tell you what to do to get around it," said Avi Rubin. "But once I do that, then I could come back and tell you what you could do to get around that."
The spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Xie Feng, says Beijing is only doing what other nations around the world do, namely safeguarding the country's national interest. "China has adopted effective measures to prevent Internet from being disturbed and invaded by harmful information," he said. "This is in China's national interest, and has won the support of the great majority of the Chinese people. This is also the common practice of many other countries."
Asked about arrests in China because of Internet-related charges, Mr. Xie says only a very small fraction of the 30 million Chinese Internet users have been taken into custody. "The reason is not because they use Internet to express their opinions," said Xie Feng. "But rather, they took advantage of Internet to violate the law, to commit crimes. So, they are criminals. Only criminals who violated the law will be arrested in China."
Carol Guthrie, spokeswoman for Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, says he co-sponsored the Global Internet Freedom Act in the Senate to champion the free flow of information on the Internet. "Senator Wyden has heard reports from the State Department and organizations like Reporters Without Borders, that there are regimes around the world, non-democratic regimes, that are refusing citizens unrestricted access to the Internet," she said. "The reason people do this is to prohibit the spread of knowledge and ideas and information, which is one of the greatest weapons against oppression and intolerance."
Ms. Guthrie said she is not certain whether the legislation will be discussed during the Congress's upcoming lame-duck session. But she said Senator Wyden and other sponsors of the bill believe the bipartisan legislation is important enough to pursue during the next session of Congress, which starts in January.