As the Chinese government expands what it calls a campaign against pornography, cellular companies in Beijing and Shanghai have been told to suspend text services to cellphone users who are found to have sent messages with “illegal or unhealthy content,” state-run news media reported Tuesday.
China Mobile, one of the nation’s largest cellular providers, reported that text messages would automatically be scanned for “key words” provided by the police, according to China Daily, a state-controlled English-language newspaper. Messages will be deemed “unhealthy” if they violate undisclosed criteria established by the central government, the newspaper said.
The increased surveillance of text messages is the latest in a series of government efforts to severely tighten control of the Internet and other forms of communication.
Since late last year, China has closed hundreds of Web sites, including popular file-sharing sites, and limited its citizens’ ability to set up personal Web sites.
Citing cyberattacks originating from China, Google last week threatened to pull out of China unless the government lifted censorship of its search results.
“It really is quite a program to seize control of all the new forms of media, one by one,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, editor and publisher of Danwei.org, an English-language Web site about the Chinese media and Internet that is currently blocked in China. “It has been a bad half year for censorship.”
Chinese authorities say the new restrictions are necessary to root out pornography, piracy and other law-breaking activity on the Internet and in electronic communications. Some analysts suggest that ministries are competing to fulfill the government’s demands for stricter controls.
Although China has quietly monitored cellphone text messages for some time, Kan Kaili, a professor of telecommunications at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunication, said the new measures appeared broader and more intrusive and punitive.
“They are doing wide-ranging checks, checking anything and everything, even if it is between a husband and wife,” he said. “I don’t think people will be very happy about this.”
He said the government had established no clear legal definition of unhealthy content. He also said commercial authorities like phone companies, even though government-owned, should not be involved in checking the contents of private messages. “This is totally wrong,” he said. “This violates citizens’ basic rights.”
In Beijing, some cellphone users were indignant about the reports. Sun Li, a businesswoman, said: “This is against the law. You can block Web sites for pornography or violence, but texts are from person to person. It has nothing to do with the public.
“If this is really so, I can’t text anyone anymore, or call anyone,” she said.
According to China Daily, the police will evaluate the text messages of users suspected of transmitting unhealthy content, and during that time, China Mobile will suspend the text-messaging function for those phone numbers. If the authorities clear a user of any violation, they will issue a certificate allowing text-messaging services to be resumed, the newspaper said.