China is on the verge of requiring telecommunications and Internet companies to detect, stop and report leaks of state secrets by their customers, the latest in a string of moves designed to strengthen the government’s control over private communications.
The proposed amendment to the state secrets law, reported Tuesday by state media, loosely defines a state secret as information that, if disclosed, would damage China’s security or interests in political, economic, defense and other realms.
The wording of the amendment as cited by the state-run media suggested that Internet providers and telecommunications companies would have to take a more active stance in checking e-mails or text messages for leaked information. But it was not clear from the reports what, if any, penalties would be imposed on companies that failed to comply.
State-run media outlets characterized the new measure as part of a drive to further engage businesses in protecting state security.
But several analysts suggested it would have limited effect. Internet and telecommunications companies are already expected to cooperate fully with state security investigations.
In one well-known case, a Chinese journalist was sentenced in 2005 to 10 years in prison for violating the state secrecy law after the authorities obtained information from Yahoo about an e-mail message he sent regarding a confidential government document. Yahoo was later severely criticized in the United States for its role in the case, and the company’s founder, Jerry Yang, eventually apologized to the journalist’s family.
“Obviously, it adds another tool that authorities would have to snoop on people,” said Jeremy Goldkorn, publisher of Danwei.org, a Web site about Chinese media and the Internet. “But I don’t think anybody thinks that their communications are safe from the prying eyes of the government.”
Some Chinese legal experts, however, described the amendment as both a contradiction of the government’s pledge to be more open and a violation of China’s constitutional guarantees of privacy and freedom of communication.
Kan Kaili, a professor at Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, said, “If the government insists on doing that, I would suggest they rewrite the Constitution. Otherwise, it is clearly illegal.”
China’s determination to control mobile phone and Internet communications has been increasingly obvious in recent months. A new bureau has been set up to help the authorities monitor social networking sites and other user-driven forums on the Internet. Other measures have been taken to step up surveillance of cellphone text messages, individual Web sites, chat rooms, blogs and other venues.
The amendment was submitted Monday to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, for a third reading, the final step before being signed into law. Few measures reach that point in China without being adopted.
China has issued rules calling on its state-owned companies to strengthen protection of their commercial secrets, which it defined broadly to include information including acquisitions and technologies, Bloomberg News reported from Shanghai.
The State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, which oversees more than 120 companies, defined commercial secrets as any practical information that is not publicly available and may potentially bring economic benefit to enterprises.
China’s definition of commercial secrets has fueled concern among foreign companies after a Rio Tinto employee and Australian citizen was sentenced to 10 years in prison last month for taking bribes and industrial espionage.
“It’s broad enough to cover every bit of business and technical information,” Nicolas Groffman, a partner at the law firm Mallesons Stephen Jaques who is based in Beijing, said of the new rules. “We don’t know more about the definition of commercial secrets, really.”
Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting, and Zhang Jing contributed research.