Now China to Scan Text Messages for Content

Just when you thought the Chinese government’s surveillance of their citizenry through technology couldn’t get any more intense, we see this:

Expanding what the Chinese government calls a campaign against pornography, cellular companies in Beijing and Shanghai have been told to suspend text services to cellphone users who are found to have sent messages with “illegal or unhealthy content,” state-run media reported on Tuesday.

China Mobile, one of the nation’s largest cellular providers, reported that text messages would automatically be scanned for “key words” provided by the police, according to the English-language China Daily newspaper. Messages will be deemed “unhealthy” if they violate undisclosed criteria established by the central government, the newspaper said.

The increased surveillance of text messages is the latest in a series of government initiatives to tighten control of the Internet and other forms of communication. Since November, the government has closed hundreds of Web sites in the name of rooting out pornography and piracy.

Kan Kaili, a professor of telecommunications at Beijing University, called the routine surveillance of cellphone messages a violation of privacy rights and the Chinese Constitution.

“They are doing wide-ranging checks, checking anything and everything, even if it is between a husband and wife,” he said. “I don’t think people will be very happy about this.”

He said the government had established no clear legal definition of unhealthy content. He also said commercial authorities such as phone companies, even though government-owned, should not be involved in checking the contents of private messages.

“This is totally wrong,” he said.

This will likely have an intense chilling effect on communication by text message in China by democracy and right advocates, as well as within Tibet.

The notion that this spying is to crack down on pornography is simply absurd. SMS messages are person to person communication, not distributed publications. There’s just no reasonable explanation for how this effort would limit the spread of pornography (a whole other ball of free speech wax). This is about monitoring dissent and furthering bolstering the climate of fear that the Chinese Communist Party uses to maintain their tenuous hold on power.

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