Beijing to ‘Hire’ Army of Internet Censors

The Beijing city government will recruit some 10,000 volunteer Web censors by the end of the year to sift out harmful content, news reports say, in the latest sign that the Chinese authorities are tightening control over the Internet. Deputy Mayor Cai Fuchao, also head of the municipal propaganda department, announced the measure at a work meeting on “purifying the Internet environment” earlier this week, the Beijing News said on Wednesday.

South China Morning Post, citing the report yesterday, said the volunteer censors would be registered with the semi-official Beijing Association of Online Media, which would coordinate their work. When they spot offending content like pornography they would report it to police, and the authorities could delete it immediately. It is not known whether the censors would be paid, but it cited industry insiders as suggesting that they might receive benefits or incentives from their employers or organizations.

Mr Cai was quoted as saying that Beijing would also set up a database of the city’s existing 370,000 registered websites. People who wish to own, edit or run websites would now need to register their real names with the authorities. Beijing’s initiatives come in the wake of an outcry over the national government’s order that, from next month, every new personal computer sold in China must come equipped with an Internet filter to block pornographic content.

More controversy could be in store over the program – called Green Dam Youth Escort – as its Chinese developers are now accused by a US company of copyright infringement. Solid Oak, a Californian software company that sells Cybersiter, a program allowing parents to block pornographic and violent content when their children use the Internet, says code from its program has been found in Green Dam. The company has been quoted by the Financial Times as saying it sent “cease and desist” letters to Hewlett-Packard and Dell on Monday, warning them they would face claims for damages if they installed Green Dam.

Mr Brian Milburn, Solid Oak chief executive, said Chinese groups opposed to Beijing’s move had offered assistance in taking legal action in the country. “If our code is being used to censor a country, we stand up to things like that,” he said. “If we can’t stop (HP and Dell from shipping), I guess the only way to resolve this would be an interim licensing agreement.” The case casts doubts over the future of the Green Dam software, for which the Chinese government had paid 41.7 million yuan, China Daily said yesterday.

Mr Zhang Chenmin, general manager of Junhui Computer System Engineering Company, one of the two companies awarded the contract to create the software, told the newspaper that Green Dam did not steal code from Cybersitter. Similarities between the two could be due to the fact that Internet filters commonly target the same websites. “They are all well-known international pornographic websites that all porn-filters are meant to block. We didn’t steal their programming code,” Mr Zhang was quoted as saying.