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NEW YORK TIMES


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Merchants leery of Wi-Fi as China imposes new controls

By Andrew Jacobs

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 04:28 a.m. HST, Jul 26, 2011



BEIJING » New regulations that require bars, restaurants, hotels and bookstores to install costly Web monitoring software are prompting many businesses to cut Internet access and sending a chill through the capital’s game playing, Web-grazing literati who have come to expect free Wi-Fi with their lattes and green tea.

The software, which costs businesses about $3,100, provides public security officials the identities of those logging on to the wireless service of a restaurant, cafe or private school and monitors their Web activity. Those who ignore the regulation and provide unfettered access face a $23,000 fine and the possible revocation of their business license.

“From the point of view of the common people, this policy is unfair,” said Wang Bo, the owner of L’Infusion, a cafe that features crepes, waffles and the companionship of several dozing cats. “It’s just an effort to control the flow of information.”

It is unclear whether the new measures will be strictly enforced or applied beyond the swath of central Beijing where they are already in effect. But they suggest that public security officials, unnerved by turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa partly enabled by the Internet, are undaunted in their efforts to ramp up controls.

China already has some of the world’s most far-reaching online restrictions. Last year, the government blocked more than 1 million websites, many of them pornographic but also Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Evite. Recent regulations make it difficult for individuals unaffiliated with a company to create personal websites.

When it comes to search engines and microblogging, diktats from the central Propaganda Department filter out topics and words that the Communist Party deems a threat to national stability, or its reputation. At public cybercafes, which is where China’s working poor have access to the Internet, customers must hand over state-issued identification before getting on a computer.

The new measures, it would appear, are designed to eliminate a loophole in “Internet management” as it is called, one that has allowed laptop- and iPad-owning college students and expatriates, as well as the hip and the underemployed, to while away their days at cafes and lounges surfing the Web in relative anonymity. It is this demographic that has been at the forefront of the microblogging juggernaut, one that has revolutionized how Chinese exchange information in ways that occasionally frighten Chinese officials.

“To be honest, I can get Internet at home or at work, but it’s nice to just sit in a comfortable place and surf the Web,” said Wang Fang, 28, an advertising sales agent who often conducts work from the leather wingchairs at Kubrick, a high-ceilinged, smartly designed cafe that unplugged its router earlier this month rather than pay for the software. “If there’s no Internet, there’s no reason to come here.”

The manager said the loss of Wi-Fi had already led to a 30 percent drop in business.

The Dongcheng Public Security Bureau did not respond to requests for comment Monday, but according to its publicly issued circular, the measure is designed to thwart criminals who use the Internet to “conduct blackmail, traffic goods, gamble, propagate damaging information and spread computer viruses.” Such nefarious activity, the notice says, “not only hurts the interests of the country and the masses but has also caused some businesses to suffer economic losses.”

The maker of the program, Shanghai Rain-Soft Software, declined to discuss how the product operates, but a company employee said it had already been delivered to public security officials in Beijing. Shanghai Rain-Soft was paid $310,000 to design the program, according to a government website that announced its winning bid.

One bookstore owner said she had already disconnected the shop’s free Wi-Fi, and not for monetary reasons.

“I refuse to be part of an Orwellian surveillance system that forces my customers to disclose their identity to a government that wants to monitor how they use the Internet,” said the woman, who feared that revealing her name or that of her shop would bring unwanted attention from the authorities.

During a survey of more than a dozen businesses Monday, none said they were prepared to purchase the software, which is designed to handle 100 users at one time.

For many, it was a matter of economics.

“It might make sense for places like Starbucks or McDonald’s, but we only have a couple of users at a time,” said Ray Heng, the owner of Sand Pebbles Lounge, a Mexican restaurant.

Like several other business owners, he said he hoped official fervor for new regulations would soon die down. In fact, he said he had no immediate plans to stop offering his customers free Wi-Fi.

“We have no problem allowing our customers to surf the Internet. It’s the government that does,” he said. “If they want us to install the software, they should foot the bill.”

Adam Century contributed reporting.






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