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China: When The State Wants To Protect You By Owning Your Privacy

Op-Ed: Some heavy skepticism, and sarcasm, by a Chinese commentator toward a new program that requires Internet cafes in Beijing to pay for a new system to allow authorities to control personal information by online users.

Internet café in Turpan, China.
Internet café in Turpan, China.

BEIJING - In recent weeks, bars, cafes and hotels located in the eastern district of the capital have been required to pay -- at their own expense – 20,000 RMB ($3,105) to set up a "Network monitoring system." This fee permits them to continue providing their customers with the right to surf the Internet on the premises.

Most of these places were told by the police to install a "Safety Management System of Internet Services in Public Places', as reported by the Beijing News. The "system" would provide them with wireless networks, and allow for the government to control the information about the users. How considerate of the police!

We are told that the mandatory installation of the software is being done for the benefit of our Internet citizens, and the public interest more generally. We know that the rapid development of the Internet not only promotes progress in society, but also brings with it negative influences. Many criminals use it for online fraud, drug-trafficking, gambling, and spreading harmful information -- as well as computer viruses. It poses risks for the country and the public interest, and can add major new costs for businesses.

The system is an excellent idea indeed! Just like two years ago, the same justification was used when the Ministry of Industry planned to force people to install a monitoring system called "Green Dam" that was provided free by the government. Eventually, though, this proposal succumbed to public opinion, and was abolished.

The question is who is going to guarantee citizens' privacy? In particular, who is to protect those citizens who use the Internet to anonymously criticize corrupt officials or reveal the authority's abuse of power? We have yet to get an answer on this from the public authority.

But naturally, there are "specialists' who stand out to defend the government's "good intentions." They say the new monitoring system is like the "real-name system" (in this system, computers are installed with software that requires users to apply a specific surfing card by using their ID card. The Internet page will open only if the cardholder's identity has been identified. ) Here it is applied to the Internet cafes, they say, and as long as there's an appropriate managing system, it does not violate personal privacy.

Lessons of the Englightenment

And then the same specialists declare: "To maintain the public's security and the nation's security, it is necessary for the government to have people's privacy in hand."

However the philosophers of the 19th century Enlightenment taught that the power to rule is a necessary evil, and by this same token, alas, it can be called a "good." In other words, the public power, at its best, is just a necessary evil. At its worst, of course, it can be the most terrifying of forces.

In practice, we have so far witnessed the fact that the police do not respect the privacy of petitioners or people who courageously denounce the corruption of the authorities. On the contrary, it is these people's privacy that is revealed to the police.

Some also hold the view that since the customers in Internet cafes are already obliged to use the real-name system, what does it matter to have another software monitoring device?

I strongly contest this idea, and indeed I have never agreed that this system should be practiced in the first place. The public's freedom ought not be restricted indefinitely. Precisely speaking, this so-called "Safety Management System of Internet Services in Public Places' is at most a ministerial regulation, not a law. It is power to limit the people's freedom. And if the authority wants to enact a law to regulate our freedom, the legitimate reason has to be justified.

In addition, if this new system is indeed a good, and a favor granted by public authorities, what on earth are the 20,000 renminbi for!? So allow me to ask a small question: are there any interests and power entangled in all this? I have never liked to guess at possible corruption of some authority, yet if the government is really implementing this system for the good of the public, at least the cost of the software and a public tender should be announced.

It is a very modest request of a citizen.

Photo- Eviltomthai

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