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China Tightens Online News Strings

UPDATED: The Chinese government has outlined new measures to limit the spread of what the communist country considers harmful news items, according to news reports Sunday.

The new measures seek to regulate what kind of information finds its way to the roughly 94 million Internet users in the country and who disseminates the information.

News organizations must now register with the government, according to the country's official press agency, Xinhua. It applies not only to online news stories but to bulletin board systems (BBS) and mobile phone news content.

"We need to better regulate the online news services with the emergence of so many unhealthy news stories that will easily mislead the public," a spokesperson with the Chinese Ministry of Information Industry (MII) stated, according to the Xinhua report.

Opinion articles posted online at Internet portals and sites can only come from government-controlled newspapers and agencies, and private individuals and groups will need to register as news organizations before they can distribute e-mails featuring news or commentary, according to a New York Times article.

Debbie Frost, a Google spokeswoman, noted its service is U.S.-based. Officials at the popular search engine site, which runs a China-specific Google News aggregator, ran afoul of Chinese authorities late last year when government officials blocked the service to Chinese viewers.

That puts its news service, unlike portals Sina.com and Sohu.com, outside the authority of Chinese officials, though it puts them at risk of getting shut out of the country again.

Interestingly enough, the top opinion piece on Sohu.com's home page features a commentary from Communist Party of China-controlled news site China Daily on concerns over government reform.

U.S. officials, who consider freedom of the press a fundamental human rights issue, are worried about the latest development from China.

"We view any attempt to limit the free flow of information with concern," said Edgar Vasquez, a State Department spokesman.

While human rights issues are always part of the U.S. government's dialogue with Chinese officials, he said he doesn't know whether officials from both governments have discussed the latest development.

The communist country has a long history of policies that seek to curtail the availability of news coming out of the country and information entering the country through the Internet.

The new rules announced Sunday expand on China's efforts to block undesirable information. According to the OpenNet Initiative, a 2000 effort to filter information required Internet access providers to track and maintain records on any questionable online publications.

The questionable material applied to pornography, gambling and violence, as well as China-specific concerns, such as divulging state secrets, seeking to overthrow the government or information that sought to "harm the dignity and interests of the State."

China's General Administration of Press and Publishing (GAPP) and MII teamed to publish the "Interim Provisions on the Administration of Internet Publication," in June 2002, according to the group. The provisions brought online publications in line with established print publication policies, as well as unified Internet regulations and supervision efforts across agencies, the OpenNet Initiative report stated.

"China operates the most extensive, technologically sophisticated, and broad-reaching system of Internet filtering in the world," the study notes. "The implications of this distorted online information environment for China's users are profound and disturbing."

Three months ago, Microsoft agreed to censor words like "human rights," "freedom," and "democracy" from its MSN China portal, which is partially owned by the Chinese government-funded Shanghai Alliance Investment.