Monday, April 21, 2014

More Details Emerge of Internet Police Involved in Nationwide Money-For-Censorship Scheme

As noted previously in this blog, during the last year China’s state run media has exposed at least two cases involving police officers in Beijing and Hainan who were entrusted with censoring online content, and who abused their authority by taking bribes to order web masters to delete information that did not violate any of China’s laws, regulations, or policies. See:
On April 17, 2014, the state sponsored Southern Weekend published an article entitled “Internet Police Bribe Internet Police: Deleting Posts for Their Bosses” (网警贿赂网警:替领导删帖). That article provided additional details on the Hainan case mentioned above. Specifically:
  • The full name of the Hainan police officer at the center of the scandal: Wei Yining (魏一宁).
  • The total number of Internet police who paid Officer Wei bribes to delete posts: 11.
  • Locations whose Internet police participated in the money-for-censorship scheme: Hunan, Liaoning, Qingdao, Nanjing.
  • Wei Yining Trial: Wei was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment. The court judgment (available here) was issued in December 13, but was only being reported on this month.
Some excerpts from the article:
Gao Qiang, a senior administrator at Kaidi Net, told this reporter that, usually the Haikou Internet police use QQ to issue deletion orders. After Gao Qiang received an order from the Internet police's common account, all he would see is an order, and there was simply no way to verify whether the order had been subject to any  legal process.

"Sometimes we would receive an order, and we would have some doubts and would follow up. The issuing Internet police officer would only say that its an order sent down from the Public Security Bureau." After a while, even though there were suspicions that certain posts should not be subjected to an order, Gao Qiang and his coworkers just got used to following orders.

Similarly, at Tianya, as soon as they received an order, the "Legal Enforcement Bureau" would chose to enforce the Internet police's order by deleting posts or shutting an account.

Orders were authoritative and could not be questioned. Even if an administrator felt doubts, they frequently did not dare question the issuer as to whether the order had been reviewed and approved by leadership, or if it was personally issued by the Internet police officer.

Anyone who had authority over the Internet could send down an order to delete a post. With respect to posts about the government that were negative, the most common demand was "Don't let them garner too much attention." "Currently the orders that come down are not in any written document, they are all issued as messages in a QQ group." Gao Qiang believes that this was a major reason why Wei Yining could use his public office for his personal gain.

Post deletion orders were not always issued in so undisciplined a manner. Many years ago, there was standard government document for orders issued to web sites. Tang Tao, a director of an Internet oversight team for a municipal government in Hunan, told a reporter with the Southern Weekend that, several years ago, when it came to post deletion, there were strict  standards and procedures regarding what kind of posts could be deleted and how they could be deleted. They mainly deleted certain posts that were unhealthy, threatening social stability, and defaming third parties.

As Tang Tao explained it, in order to delete a post, it was necessary to first submit a report to a supervisor and to the senior Internet oversight department. Afterwards, an Internet Information Registration Form was filled in, and after specifying evidence and other measures, they would write up an Internet Sensitive Information Handling Circular, and an official would sign and chop it. After these procedures were completed Web sites would be notified by phone and fax.

Based on Tang Tao's understanding, there are many kind of orders that Internet police can issue, including deletion, filtering, temporary suspension, and shutting down. Post deletion order are extremely sensitive: they must be implemented immediately.

Southern Weekend has learned from reviewing a written order from the Internet Illegal Information Inspection Management System of the Binhai New District Public Security Bureau in Tianjin that, based on the system's technical specifications, within one minute after illegal information is detected, the system will issue an SMS alert to webmasters under their jurisdiction. The system will automatically perform a check within one minute after the website has deleted the illegal information. The system also requires that Level 1 Illegal Information must be detected within 10 minutes and dealt with within 20 minutes; Level 2 Illegal Information must be detected within 20 minutes and dealt with within 40 minutes; and Level 3 Illegal Information must be detected within 60 minutes and dealt with within 20 hours.

Long-time Tianya editor Liu Liu told this reporter that, Tianya's "Law Enforcement Bureau" has 50 people. About six people handle government orders, and they work on three shifts around the clock for orders that come down from the Internet police on the internal RTX system. "The time limit for clear instructions to delete posts, for example, saying XX post must be deleted immediately, is ten minutes." Liu said that, if they do not delete a post in that time, they will be called out by name in the online group by the Internet police who issued the order: "What do you think you're doing being so slow."
. . . .
The defense lawyer claimed that, while Wei Yining received financial gain from others, nevertheless what got deleted were posts that had a severely negative impact on the government, and there was no attempt to seek any other benefits for third parties, so his actions did not constitute accepting bribes.

The Internet oversight team supervisor Tang Tao said that many people would use that kind of relationship to find a local Internet police officer in the hope getting in touch with an Internet police officer that could get posts deleted. "For example, an official in a local agency sees some negative talk about himself or his agency in a Tianya forum, so he will think to use this method to get the post deleted."

Tang Tao believes that these Internet police officers were only working on behalf of their superiors, and in some cases they might relate to classified matters, and therefore the public cannot participate in oversight of Internet police work. This lead to Internet police like Wei Yining using their public office for personal gain, using the law enforcement authority they held to provide a natural screen for their rent-seeking and money-making.

The judge in the case specifically noted in the court judgment: "Not every post that has a negative impact on the government is illegal or infringing. In accordance with the spirit of the law and requirements of government administration in accordance with the law, the government also has the obligation to accept public oversight. By receiving financial gain for deleting posts without first having undergone review and approval, he in fact weakened the effectiveness of public oversight, and in reality sought to gain benefit from the organizations and agencies at whom the posts were targeted."










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The article was originally available here - - but as these screenshots show, it was deleted within hours.

As this screenshot shows, no link to article appears on the Southern Weekend web site.
 On April 18, the state sponsored Beijing News published an editorial by Zeng Ying (曾颖) about the Southern Weekend article entitled “How Can We Restrain Local Governments That Illegal Delete Posts” (地方政府非法删帖的需求怎么遏制). Some excerpts:
The [Southern Weekend] report noted that, everything that got deleted was "essentially negative information about government agencies that local governments did not want to be seen." So it appears that certain local officials' understanding of online public sentiment remains stuck in the archaic times of the broadcast age, believing deleting posts and silencing voices is the most effective way to block the spread of information they don't like. When they run into an incident in their jurisdiction, whether its justified or not, their first reaction is to make it disappear.
. . . .
There is a lack of standards in way the Internet is governed today, and this is the "objective reason" for the flood of illegal post deletion demands from officials. As for the employees who participate in and carry out post deletions, because there are no operating rules that clearly and concretely delineate whether one's own behavior is "legal" or "illegal," or where there are rules they leave far too much room unrestrained discretion, the result is a lack of guidance to the point of sinking into an abyss of criminality. There are those among them, including defense attorneys, who self-righteously believe that what they are doing is a "public service." And for those who do not see the law but only the so-called public service of their superiors, the main issue is relevant laws and regulations are not comprehensive, and the conflict between following orders and obeying they law is creating a disastrous  outcome.

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