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Beijing's Olympian censorship machine laid bare

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A democracy activist working undercover at a Chinese internet company has exposed how the Beijing government is strangling online dissent ahead of next year's Olympics.

In an investigation released today by press freedom group Reporters Without Borders, "Mr Tao", a technician at an undisclosed firm, reveals details of recently-developed mechanisms for silencing opposition to the regime.

"Prior to 2005, the Beijing authorities had not really organised an internet control system," writes Tao.

Now there are at least five federal bodies whose job it is to distribute propaganda online, monitor websites, control internet companies, and clamp down on transgressors.

Today's report highlights how the State apparatus responded to reports by China Business News in 2006 that Foxconn, the iPod-manufacturing giant, was mistreating its workers.

In September, Apple leant on Foxconn to call off its witch hunt for the two journalists involved. At the same time, according to Mr Tao, Chinese website owners got a text message ordering them not to report the case. It said: "Do not disseminate reports about the Foxconn case so that it is not exploited by those who want independence to advance their cause."

One directive, dated 30 May 2006, said: "Regarding the death of a radio presenter while she was at the deputy mayor's home, do not disseminate any reports, do not send any new articles, withdraw those that have already been posted on the site."

In May and June 2006 a total of 74 directives were sent out by the Beijing Internet Information Administrative Bureau, the most active of the censorship departments. Its procedures have been sharpened this year so demands are prioritised in three categories with fines for failure to obey on time. The most urgent must be acted on within five minutes.

The bureau bans news ahead of time, orders takedowns, and demands publication of propaganda by major internet companies including Yahoo! China and Baidu, the world's second-biggest search engine after Google. Internet firms are taken on propaganda away days to encourage self-censorship.

There are between 400 and 500 banned keywords which companies self-censor behind the Great Firewall. All references to the date of the Tiananmen Square massacre - June 4 1989 - are taboo, for example.

Reporters Without Borders, working with the Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said: "This system of censorship is unparalleled anywhere in the world and is an insult to the spirit of online freedom.

"With less than a year to go before the Beijing Olympics, there is an urgent need for the government to stop blocking thousands of websites, censoring online news, and imprisoning internet activists."

Mr Tao gives Chinese web users tips on how to avoid Big Brother online, including using proxies and anonymising services such as Tor. By using the latest internet communication tools before the regime becomes aware of them, dissenters may be able to stay one step ahead of Beijing's big red pen.

The full report, entitled Journey to the heart of internet censorship, is here (pdf). ®

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