“Network Security Officers” to Monitor Work of Web Firms

Almost a decade ago, Shenzhen’s Public Security Bureau launched a new online feature, two animated mascots named Jingjing and Chacha who represented the Internet police. The goal of the mascots, who were later introduced in other cities, was “to publicly remind all netizens to be conscious of safe and healthy use of the Internet, self-regulate their online behavior, and maintain harmonious Internet order together.” Now, Internet companies in China are getting real-life, on-site cyberpolice, as another layer in China’s multifaceted strategy to monitor Internet use and behavior. Jonathan Chew reports for TIME:

Key “network security officers” will monitor the work of key websites and Web firms for crimes such as fraud and the “spreading of rumors,” China’s Ministry of Public Security said in a statement. These officers would be a part of the roughly 2 million people employed by the government to monitor Web activity, as first reported by the BBC.

The ministry didn’t say which companies would be getting a new in-house police unit, the Wall Street Journal notes. It also wasn’t clear whether these new measures would apply to international companies as well as local tech firms operating in China.

Still, this news will be of special interest to the three biggest Internet companies in China: retail giant Alibaba, messaging company Tencent and search-engine service provider Baidu. Alibaba has already issued a statement to TechCrunch saying it will work “with Chinese authorities to combat illegal and criminal activities on the Internet. It is our priority to maintain the reliability and security of our platforms to protect our customers.” Baidu and Tencent have yet to respond to the news. [Source]

Liu Rong at People’s Daily explains the government’s rationale for the new program:

Chen Zhimin, Vice Minister of the MPS, said Tuesday that online police, who are responsible for openly inspecting the operation of websites and enforcing laws governing online activities, should work hard to uncover and prevent various illegal acts online.

At a national working conference on the security of major websites and online services held in Beijing, Chen said that more efforts should be made to provide online police service through “online police stations,” which are designed to learn about suspected online crimes and guide websites to increase their abilities to stay safe.

The Ministry of Public Security will actively respond to the new opportunities and challenges posed by the development of the internet in China, that is, it will do its best to promote the rule of law in online communities, ensuring a healthy, harmonious and orderly online environment, Chen said. [Source]

The new program highlights a more prominent and public role for public security in monitoring the Internet. (In an interview with CDT, NGO activist Lu Jun discussed the expanding role of police in Chinese society and how it has impacted civil society.) From Reuters:

Police should take a leading role in online security and work closely with internet regulators, the deputy minister, Chen Zhimin, told a conference in Beijing on Tuesday.

“We will set up network security offices inside important website and internet firms, so that we can catch criminal behaviour online at the earliest possible point,” Chen said, according to the statement.

Authorities have been tightening control over the domestic internet in recent years and have at times admonished social media companies such as Tencent Holdings Ltd and Sina Corp for failing to move quickly enough to remove pornography, scams, rumours or politically sensitive content. [Source]

Authorities’ tightening control over the Internet is currently in the process of being legislated through a proposed cybersecurity law, which critics have said is overly vague and restrictive. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both submitted comments on the draft law during the period of public consultation, which ends today. Zhao Fuduo and Song Baoling of Caixin report on domestic opposition to the law:

One clause says officials can cut Internet access in an area “to maintain national security and social order or to deal with large-scale riots.” Officials need to get permission from the State Council, the cabinet, to turn off the Net.

Lawmakers need to establish detailed guidelines for when authorities can shut down the Internet or limit access in a given area for a certain period, Wang said.

Ding Daoqin, a professor at the China Academy of Telecommunication Research, a government-backed think-tank, wrote in an article published on July 27 that cybersecurity laws are common in other countries, but authorities should exercise great caution before imposing Internet blackouts in the name of national security. He also argued the law should give only the NPC Standing Committee the authority to shut down the Internet. [Source]