Is China Trying to Prevent Another Iran?

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Bent on wiping pornography from its citizens' Web, China has expanded its Internet blocking policy to include sexual health sites.

Medical information providers have been told to restrict access to articles on sexual subjects, The New York Times reports. Failure to do so results in $4400 penalties, followed by criminal prosecution for continued offenses. This is in addition to the supposed blocking of Google sites reported yesterday and the country's Green Dam Youth Escort program, which mandates that all computer manufacturers install Web filtering software on Chinese computers starting July 1.

All of this is being done in the name of eliminating porn from the country, but it's worth noting that the additional measures -- Google and health site blocking -- were put in place at the same time that Iran tries to squash a reformist uprising fueled in part by the Internet.

On the face of it, Iran and China are in completely different situations, but the Times points to previous Internet crackdowns, also intended to block pornography, that had wider implications. When Google modified its search engine during a Web blocking push in late 2005 and early 2006, it hid search results related to the banned spiritual movement Falun Gong and to the bloodier side of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Additionally, a Human Rights Watch researcher, Nicholas Bequelin, told the Times that the same group safeguarding the Internet for pornography is also charged with silencing political unrest. He notes that government statistics on confiscated illegal publications includes both porn and political documents.

Though Iran has since clamped down on Internet protests after the election defeat of Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the initial videos, tweets, and Facebook postings put a bad face on the ruling party. It's hard to say whether China is reacting specifically to these protests, but there's definitely a parallel.

That puts companies such as Google and Microsoft, whose Bing search engine is now filtering out sensitive political topics, in an awkward position. American companies comply with China's demands because it's too big a market to ignore, but cordoning off sections of the Internet is harder to justify when an uprising is at hand.

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