Corporates Urged to Police the Web Ahead of Congress

The New York Times reports that China’s domestic cybersecurity arm pressured a number of businesses in Beijing and elsewhere, including some affiliated with foreign companies, to assist in stifling Internet traffic ahead of the 18th Party Congress:

Starting earlier this year, Web police units directed the companies, which included joint ventures involving American corporations, to buy and install hardware to log the traffic of hundreds or thousands of computers, block selected Web sites, and connect with local police servers, according to industry executives and official directives obtained by The New York Times. Companies faced the threat of fines and suspended Internet service if they did not comply by prescribed deadlines.

The initiative was one in a range of shadowy tactics authorities deployed in the months leading up to the 18th Party Congress, which is scheduled to end on Wednesday, in an escalating campaign against information deemed threatening to party rule. The effort, while spottily executed, was alarming enough to spur one foreign industry association to lodge a complaint with the government. Several foreign companies quietly resisted the orders, which posed risks to communications and trade secrets that they take pains to secure.

This past summer, the Internet police in the provinces of Hebei and Shandong ordered three American companies to install the monitoring systems at local joint ventures, according to a spokesman for the Quality Brands Protection Committee, a foreign industry group representing more than 200 major corporations operating in China.

Elsewhere, American, Japanese and Korean companies received similar orders, executives said. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for their companies and feared compromising local business relationships.

The report adds color to the connection issues experienced by many within China last week, where netizens reportedly lost access to all Google services on Friday and Twitter warned users that efforts had been made to compromise their accounts. The Wall Street Journal noted that the Google outage highlighted the dangers Beijing’s information war poses to global businesses operating in China:

Beijing risks a backlash if it were to block Google outright on a long-term basis, said Mr. Wolf, of Wolf Group Asia. Many corporate users rely on Gmail and other Google services, and a blockage could make China a less-attractive place to do business. In addition, disruptions are increasingly unappealing to businesses that rely on cloud services, which are offered by Google and others and in which data are stored remotely.

“If China insists in the medium and long term of creating another Great Firewall between the China cloud and the rest of the world, China will be an increasingly untenable place to do business,” Mr. Wolf said.

Such a move also could put Beijing in violation of its free-trade commitment under the World Trade Organization, which China joined in 2001. China has said it complies with WTO requirements.