Censorship is being extended to mobile phones

BEIJING — Censorship in China is being extended to mobile phone text messages, as state-owned mobile telcos say they will block any SMS messages that do not meet the strict requirements of the country’s net nannies.

China’s three major telecom operators, China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom, will block text messages that contain “vulgar or indecent” text messages. China has 750 million cellphone subscribers.

More surveillance of text messages is part of a broader campaign aimed at restricting access to the Internet. China has 384 million netizens and is the world’s largest Internet market by number of users. The news, carried in state media, of tighter control of cellphones is significant because most of China’s new legions of web users use mobile phones to access the Internet.

Facebook, YouTube and other popular websites are banned in China because of their potentially seditious content, and the government has made it illegal to set up personal websites without registering domain names with a state agency first.

News that China is tightening its grip on electronic content further comes weeks after Google, the world’s most popular search engine, said it was thinking about quitting China after suffering a sophisticated cyber-attack on its network, focusing on rights activists. Google also said it was no longer willing to filter content on its Chinese-language google.cn.

China Mobile, China’s biggest cellphone operator and the world’s biggest by market value, says that text messages would automatically be scanned for “key words” provided by the police to see if they contained “unhealthy” content. Implementing these new rules could be interesting. China Mobile subscribers sent more than 600 billion texts in 2008.

The text message content will be screened to see if it contains any of the 13 proscribed terms listed by nine government departments, including the description of sexual acts or human sexual organs, or any type of sexual innuendo.

China Unicom says text messages would only be blocked on cellphones if the number of indecent messages reached a certain amount or if other users submitted complaints.

Mobile phone users are worried that their privacy may be violated by the new rules. The Chinese constitution guarantees freedom of correspondence, and only in cases of criminal investigations can the public security bureau censor correspondence between people. However, given the levels of state surveillance that are allowed in China, there is unlikely to be a big fuss.

Since an anti-smut campaign was introduced last year, the government boasts that is has blocked access to banned websites more than 87 million times and shut down more than 15,000 pornographic websites. Rights activists complain that the anti-pornography tools are also being used to monitor dissenting voices in China.

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