Over 100 “illegal” websites have been shut down by Chinese authorities since early May. Many believe that the crackdown is aimed at independent watchdog sites in mainland China.
According to the State Internet Information Office, the 107 websites [zh] were shut down for failing to obtain official permission to establish and run sites, allegedly blackmailing government and corporate officials, and using terms such as “China” and “people” in their names.
Failure to obtain licenses and permits for news websites
Websites that wish to produce original news content must apply for permission to do so under the Provisions for the Administration of Internet News Information Services, enacted in September 2005. This regulation seeks to ensure that information portals distribute news that comes exclusively from state-controlled and approved media sources, such as People's Daily, Xinhua news and other outlets where propaganda officials have explicit oversight. Many of the affected sites indeed had not obtained permits.
Other websites had not registered their domains properly. In order to operate legally in China, when registering their domains, online content providers must obtain a license from the Ministry of Information Industry. Once these things are established, site web masters are required to respond to government requests for user data and content removal.
For individuals or small groups wanting to start their own websites, these regulations create large, often insurmountable obstacles. Many do not have the resources to comply with government requests for content removal and user data, which can easily become a full-time job for one or more people. Others are unable to obtain the costly business licenses needed to apply for an online content provider license.
To get around these bureaucratic procedures, some choose to affiliate themselves with established institutions or corporations so that they can register as a “web-branch” of a legitimate entity. Currently, there are many privately-run websites registered as “web-branches” of established institutions — a clear-cut crackdown on these “web-branches” would be disastrous.
Authorities also accused some of these sites of blackmailing individuals, institutions and corporations through online complaint, corruption monitoring and rights-defending activities.
A handful of sites on the crackdown list do indeed make their business by providing content deletion services for corporations or individuals wherein they delete “defamatory” remarks or critical comments that upset their clients. There are cases when the defamatory contents are posted by the content deletion service providers themselves, who then collect a fee for removing the content.
But most of the so-called “blackmailing” activities are citizen initiatives that uncover corruption of government officials and party members. In July 2013, corruption whistleblower Zhu Ruifeng's Remin Jianduwang which was registered in Hong Kong, was blocked. Zhu has been accused of engaging in blackmailing activities more than once by Chinese government authorities.
Unauthorized use of the terms “People”, “China” and “Chinese”
Websites that use terms such as “people”, “China” and “Chinese” to name themselves are considered “fraudulent” and thus deemed “illegal”.
It is a well-established norm in NGO registration that institutions cannot use these terms in their names unless they are directly controlled by the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party. Now this practice has been extended to governance in the online world.
To justify the crackdown, the Chinese authorities claimed that websites such as “People's Voices” (人民之聲） or “People's shopping” (人民購物網）, “People's News”（人民要聞) mislead the public, giving the false impression that these sites are affiliated with the Party's mouthpiece, the People's Daily. The solution is to take down the sites altogether.
Among the sites recently taken down are several devoted to citizen legal rights and anti-corruption efforts, including China Legal Rights Net (中国法制权益网), Xiaoxiang Anti-corruption Forum (潇湘反腐论坛), Legal Rights Defense Net (法律维权网), China Legal System Monitor (中国法制监督网), People's Rights Monitor (人民权利监督运行网), Legal Report (法制报道网), People's Petition (人民信访网), and many other similar organizations.
According to a notice issued by Xianyang government authorities [zh], the three-month campaign aims to shut down independent websites that hire journalists to do editorial work. Judging from the crackdown list, many Chinese netizens believe that the authorities are targeting citizen and independent watchdogs in an effort to re-establish party mouthpieces as the chief representative of the public interest in China.
Thumbnail photo taken from Flickr user Social Media Max (CC: AT-NC-SA)