China has become the latest country to seek to tighten its cyber-security laws and strengthen their online censorship laws which are already by some distance the most intrusive in the world.
For many years now, the Communist regime in China has operated it’s so-called ‘Great Firewall’ which systematically blocks any websites and services which it feels contains content opposed to the regime or contrary to their ideology. Many sites which are household names in the rest of the world, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter cannot be accessed in China, with local alternatives created instead.
However, until now this policy has not been formally written into their law books. But now, Xinhua, the state news agency in China, has reported that draft legislation has now been placed before the standing committee of the National People’s Congress which will, in effect, do just that.
The draft law will require ISPs in China to “comply with social morals and accept the supervision of the government” according to Xinhua. This can be translated as meaning they must adhere to Communist Party doctrine, and that Party officials will be keeping a close eye to make sure they do so.
This may not seem hugely surprising to anyone familiar with China’s internet policies, but there is another aspect to the law which is likely to raise concerns in the global internet community. It also requires that both the personal data of Chinese citizens and “important business data” must be stored within China.
It goes on to explain that any company wishing to take this data outside of China would require the consent of the Communist Party to do so.
Should this rule come into effect, it will be a major obstacle for those international services, such as LinkedIn, which have so far proved willing to censor their content at the whim of the Communist regime. Most international online companies make their money out of the data they hold, and this necessitates moving that data around.
China is a massive and very appealing market to all tech companies, but even if they were willing to censor content in order to gain access to it, whether they would be willing, and indeed able, to comply with a law that required no data to be moved outside China, is highly questionable.
Slow to come to fruition
It is likely that these new rules are specifically designed to drive overseas companies out of the Chinese market. The Communist regime has a long track record of protectionist policies and is well aware of the value of its own market. Whenever a new social media or website trend takes off elsewhere in the world, it is never too long before a Chinese company copies it. These companies often have close links to the Communist Party and are always willing to comply with its censorship and surveillance requirements.
It is not clear how long it might take for the laws to officially come into force. China is notoriously bureaucratic and legislation has to pass through numerous different drafts and readings before it is actually signed into law.
But the intended direction of internet freedom in China is clear, and for those users based there who have not already looked for a way to get around the ‘Great Firewall’ and the prying eyes of the Communist Party, this may well be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
There are of course ways that you can use the internet openly and privately from within China. A VPN is the most common and popular solution – so much so that a few months ago, the founder of the Great Firewall himself used one to get around his own creation during a speech – and many offer services specifically aimed at the Chinese market. While some of the biggest names are blocked in China, many are not and there is still a wide range of options for Chinese users who care about online privacy and openness.