Chinese Big Brother

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Filed under: First Amendment Issues

Adorable Orwellian Cartoon Cops Patrol Beijing’s Internet
by Walaika Haskins
August 29, 2007

Web users in Beijing will soon have company — even when they surf alone. The Chinese government has deployed two cartoon cops to make appearances on users’ screens every half-hour, reminding them of China’s laws regarding “objectionable” content on the Web and asking whether they’d care to report any possibly illicit activity.

china_pornpolice_200.jpgIn an attempt to combat what it views as illicit activities, the Chinese government announced Tuesday it will deploy two virtual police officers to patrol the Internet, according to reports from the state-run China Daily.

The cartoon cops, one male and one female, will hit their beat Saturday and will be on duty 24/7, safeguarding Beijing’s gateway Web sites and accepting cybercrime complaints concerning online pornography and other so-called malicious content.

Fending off objectionable content is the duty of the Chinese government and its citizens, according to Zhao Hongzhi, deputy chief of China’s Ministry of Information Industry’s bureau of Internet Surveillance Center. The animated cops, he said, will protect Web surfers from content that does public harm and disrupts social order, as well as listen to suggestions of Internet users.

Chinese authorities have long censored the Internet by creating a so-called Great Wall, or information gateway, comprised of a series of servers that act as a barrier between China’s Internet and the Internet at large, according to a report from the China Digital Times. The gateways allow the government to monitor information flow and send out fake TCP (transmission control protocol) packages to cut the TCP connections when certain keywords are detected.

Serve and Protect

The cyber coppers, designed by, will appear in a variety of guises, cruising on motorcycles, riding in police cars or on foot and arriving at the bottom of computer screens every 30 minutes to remind Beijing’s 5.46 million Web surfers of Internet security .

The virtual police will initially patrol 13 major news portals, such as and Later, by the end of the year, the two officers will monitor all Web sites and online forums based in Beijing.

The city’s residents will be able to report undesirable content by clicking on the virtual officers, which will take them to an Internet Surveillance Center Web site through which they can report illegal activities and harmful information, according to Zhao.

Valid complaints will receive a call back from the real-world cops 30 minutes after the initial report was received. The police will only act against residents who have broken the law and take action against virtual assets and Internet accounts, officials said. They will also deal with emergencies.

New Strategy

Internet users in Shenzen, a city in the Guangdong Province, have been under the watchful eye of their own cyber cops, “Jingjing” and “Chacha,” since January 2006, according to the China Digital Times. The Jing Cha, Chinese for “police,” have patrolled Web sites and Web forums in Shenzen, educating residents about the country’s many laws and legal regulations regarding Net surfing.

In April, the government announced plans to broaden the use of its cartoon cops to create a virtual force that would symbolize the government’s monitoring of all major Web sites and online forums, according to a state media report. Chinese officials, the paper said, were pleased with the officers’ successful deployment in Shenzen in rooting out “harmful material and information” and “illicit activities” on the Internet.

Aware They’re Watching

“In a perverse way, they may be from our view not helpful in the sense they are positive, but at least people then are clearly aware and have been informed that their electronic activities are being monitored and they can exercise whatever cautions they see fit,” Sophie Richardson, deputy director, Asia division at Human Rights Watch, told TechNewsWorld.

“But of course this further impinges on users’ freedom of speech on the Net because of course people obviously say different things when they know they are being monitored and when they know people have been sent to jail for having conversations about certain subjects online,” she added.

Chinese authorities probably launched the program because other methods are losing their effectiveness, Shawn McCarthy, an analyst at IDC, told TechNewsWorld.

“My guess is that people have found work-arounds to the government censorship technology efforts,” he explained. “Thus the government is looking for citizen help to identify and report content that the government deems problematic.”

With its mix of liberals, conservatives and moderates, China’s society will have a varied response to this new initiative, he said, with some viewing the cyber police patrol as a form of protection. Others, he continued, will see it as intrusive, and a large number will not have an opinion either way.

“But in general, as Internet connectivity brings more political ideas and alternative into a community, people eventually will grow more tolerant of divergent ideas and less tolerant of attempts to limit information,” he contended.

With manifold methods available in China to circumvent the government’s carefully constructed layers of censorship, McCarthy said, the virtual officers will only be partially successful in curbing pornography and other content the government seeks to block.

“It’s really just an online form that citizens can fill out, with a cute icon. It’s probably no more effective than any other button or link,” he pointed out. “There are multiple ways to bypass most types of censorship. It depends on how hard people want to work in order to do so.”