Beijing’s New WiFi Protection Racket

Funny story. Beijing cop goes into a bar, looks around, and says “Nice place ya got here. Would be a shame if anything happened to it.” The owner looks quizzically at the cop, who shrugs and says “I’m here to collect the money for the new WiFi software.”

Protection racket? You be the judge.

When the new Beijing public WiFi rules came out a few days ago, I doubt anyone was surprised. After all, we’ve seen this sort of attempt to monitor web usage before. First there was the Great Firewall itself, then monitoring at Net cafes, an ill-fated try to have surveillance software pre-installed on PCs, and a host of real-name systems designed to cut down on anonymous activity.

So nothing really new here:

Police have told cafes, hotels and other businesses in central Beijing to install surveillance technology for Wi-Fi users or face fines and possible closure, in a further tightening of internet controls. (The Guardian)

Public WiFi used to be relatively rare, but in recent years it has become so common that one now expects Net access at bars and restaurants. Since the authorities had already gone after Net cafes years ago, it made perfect sense that they would eventually catch up with the ever-expanding number of businesses that offered WiFi service.

And the story would have ended there for me except that every article I read on the topic included a strangely large number of references to financial considerations.

Here’s the first paragraph of the New York Times piece on the new program:

New regulations that require bars, restaurants, hotels and bookstores to install costly Web monitoring software are prompting many businesses to cut Internet access and sending a chill through the capital’s game-playing, Web-grazing literati who have come to expect free Wi-Fi with their lattes and green tea.

Granted, the NYT lede does discuss this in terms of censorship, but the cost of the software and the decision making of small businesses is mentioned first.

Here’s the beginning of a Global Times article on the subject:

Bars and cafés in Dongcheng district’s Wudaoying Hutong have been forced to cut off free Wi-Fi services for their customers, rather than paying 20,000 yuan ($3,104) to the local police station for new software.

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily expect the Global Times to run an article on the censorship aspects of this (the GT has some government independence issues), but by talking about the financial aspects of this, the article actually questions what the police are trying to accomplish with the program.

What’s clear is that bar and cafe owners are not pleased. Although some have problems with the privacy aspects of Net monitoring, you can bet that none are too happy that they are being asked to underwrite the new system. Owners either pay the police for the software installation (RMB 20,000) or face a fine (RMB 15,000); a substantial amount for a small business in a competitive industry.

One bar employee quoted by the Global Times was blunt:

“I don’t think it’s proper for the police to do it,” Wang said, “Their job is to maintain public security. They should not charge us money.”

From the Guardian:

“It is just unbelievable. Customers are not happy either,” said Leona Zhang, manager of the Contempio bar.

“Some owners simply think this is for the public security bureaux to make money from us. The charge is the same regardless of size, even for small ones with only two or three tables.”

Quite a few bar and cafe owners, facing such a cost, have given up on WiFi service, only to see their revenue plunge by as much as 30%. The New York Times did an informal survey of over a dozen businesses this past Monday, none of which were prepared to move forward with purchasing the software.

It seems as though the big sticking point is not the censorship itself, but the way it is being implemented. Why indeed should the police be charging this amount of money, even to small cafes that may only have a couple tables?

Sure, there was a cost associated with development of the software. A Shanghai company, Rainsoft, was reportedly paid USD 310,000 for their trouble. But since Rainsoft was paid this fixed amount, I suppose that means that all installation fees go to the local police.

You can find more gangsta government stories at China Hearsay. Also look for me on Google+ and Twitter.

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