China Expands Internet Surveillance to Beijing Businesses

By: Matt Lavigueur on 1 August 2011

Chinese officials have recently unveiled plans for an expansion of the country's already extensive web filtering system, which would increase monitoring of wireless network activity of businesses in central Beijing. The new regulations would require bars, restaurants, hotels, and bookstores to install web monitoring software that would allow owners and the government to check user identities and monitor online activity. The new filtering software, developed by Shanghai Rain-Soft Software, also comes with a hefty price tag: roughly $3,100 for installation, at the business owner’s expense. Failure to install the new surveillance system could lead to fines of $2,300 or revocation of business licenses of non-compliant establishments.

Although the new regulations are currently being implemented only in central Beijing’s Dongcheng district, there has already been significant backlash from owners and patrons alike. Many patrons frequent these cafes almost exclusively for the use of the free wireless that comes with their purchases. As one customer of Kubrick, a local cafe, stated, “If there’s no Internet, there’s no reason to come here.” The owner of Kubrick, who recently decided to disconnect his router rather than pay for the costly surveillance equipment, has stated that the loss of wireless has already led to a 30% drop in business.

Other business owners have voiced frustration over the fact that small businesses are now being required to pay for a surveillance system that is able to accommodate up to 100 users, when their establishments have only a few web users at any given time. Mexican restaurant owner Ray Heng says, “It might make sense for places like Starbucks or McDonald’s, but we only have a couple of users at a time,” adding, “If they want us to install the software, they should foot the bill.”

The new surveillance measures have significant implications for Internet freedom in China, where Internet cafes and public wireless networks have previously allowed at least some degree of anonymity. Cybercafes have often served as outlets for the very active microblogging community, which has often been a source of criticism towards the Chinese government. The new plans for Internet monitoring, combined with the associated cost of installation for the monitoring system itself, are likely to both increase state capacity for online monitoring and concentrate public wireless network users in smaller areas as some businesses decide to no longer offer wireless services.

Whether China will expand the new surveillance requirements beyond the Dongcheng district remains to be seen. Chinese officials have stated that the new measures are intended to target users who "conduct blackmail, traffic goods, gamble, propagate damaging information and spread computer viruses."