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China set to tighten state-secrets law forcing Internet firms to inform on users

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By Gillian Wong
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

BEIJING -- China is poised to strengthen a law requiring telecommunications and Internet companies to inform on customers who discuss state secrets, potentially forcing businesses to collaborate with the country's vast, dissent-stifling security apparatus.

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The move, reported Tuesday by state media, comes as China continues tightening controls on communications services. It follows a dispute over censorship that prompted Google last month to move its Chinese site to Hong Kong, which provides broader protection of civil liberties than does mainland China.

An amendment to the Law on Guarding State Secrets, submitted in draft form to China's top legislature for review, would make more explicit the requirement that telecommunications operators and Internet service providers assist police and state security departments in investigations of leaks of state secrets, the state-run China Daily newspaper said.

"Information transmissions should be immediately stopped if they are found to contain state secrets," the official Xinhua News Agency quoted the amendment as saying. Xinhua said that according to the amendment, once a leak of a state secret has been discovered, records should be kept and the finding reported to authorities.

In China, state secrets have been so broadly defined that virtually anything -- maps, GPS coordinates, even economic statistics -- could fall into the category, and officials sometimes use the classification as a way to avoid disclosing information.

The new draft preserves that wide scope, defining state secrets, according to Xinhua, as "information that concerns state security and interests and would, if leaked, damage state security and interests in the areas of politics, economy and national defense, among others." Reports did not say what the penalties for violations would be under the amended law.

But its passage would probably not mean a significant change, as communications companies are already often compelled to comply with investigations.

The amended law is most likely to affect people using local Internet service providers. It is unclear whether Google, which still runs some services such as Google Video on its China site, will fall under the radar. Many other overseas Web sites, including Facebook and Twitter, are already blocked in China. The law probably won't interfere with companies that do not provide China-based services or store data in the country.

In 2005, Yahoo was heavily criticized by media, human rights activists and U.S. lawmakers after it acknowledged giving Chinese prosecutors details of e-mail use by Chinese journalist Shi Tao. Shi was jailed in 2005 for allegedly providing state secrets to foreigners. His e-mails allegedly contained a copy of a government memo on media restrictions.

The draft amendment was submitted Monday to the National People's Congress Standing Committee for a third review, usually the final stage before being adopted by lawmakers.

Beijing-based human rights lawyer Mo Shaoping said the amended law would mean that communications service providers would be unable to protect the privacy of their clients.

"Such regulation will leave users with no secrets at all, since the service providers have no means to resist the police," Mo said.

-- Associated Press



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