New software rule impacts Chinese cyber cafe

In a move that could make online access to gambling and other forbidden practices from cyber cafes more difficult, authorities in the southern Chinese city of Nanchang now require that Internet cafes install Chinese-developed operating systems, raising new concerns over cyber-snooping by authorities, reports Associated Press.

The new rules went quietly into effect a month ago and are aimed at cracking down on the use of pirated software, said Hu Shenghua, a spokesman for the Culture Bureau in Nanchang.

Under the new rule, Internet cafe operators are required to remove all unlicensed software and replace it with legitimate copies of either Microsoft Windows or China's homegrown Red Flag Linux operating system while paying a fee, he said.

However, AP reports that Radio Free Asia has revealed that cyber cafes are being required to install Red Flag Linux even if they were using authorised copies of Windows. It quoted Xiao Qiang, director of the California-based China Internet Project, as saying the new rules could help authorities snoop on Internet cafes that now operate on the margins of the law.

Chinese who access the Web at Internet cafes are already required to register with their identification cards. Whether accessed from home or an Internet cafe, the Web within China is regularly patrolled by specially trained monitors looking for content deemed politically subversive or related to gambling, pornography, or illegal business dealings. Large numbers of Web sites are blocked and dozens of Chinese citizens have been arrested for accessing or sending politically sensitive information over the Web.

Contacted by Associated Press, one cyber cafe operator said that officials came last month to replace the pirated software the cafe had been using. The operator said the new regulations had increased costs "dramatically," but customers had been pleased by the improved performance.

China has the world's largest population of Internet users at 253 million, and authorities are eager to encourage Internet usage as a driver for commerce.

Fan Hongguan, a spokesman for Beijing-based Red Flag Software company said the company had been marketing a version of the operating system with chat functions to Internet cafes for three years. Fan declined to comment on the surveillance allegations.

"It makes sense for Internet cafes to use (Red Flag) because of their high user traffic and the system's safeguards against viruses," Fan said.

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