China is poised to pass a law requiring telecommunications and internet companies to report any revelation of state secrets, potentially forcing businesses to collaborate with the country's vast security apparatus that stifles political dissent.
The move to make communications companies monitor and inform on clients' activities, reported Tuesday by state media, comes as China continues tightening controls on the internet and telecommunications services. It also follows a spat over censorship that prompted search giant Google to move its Chinese site to Hong Kong last month.
A draft law submitted to China's top legislature for review obliges telecoms operators and Internet service providers to help police and state security departments in investigations about leaks of state secrets, the state-run China Daily newspaper said.
In China, state secrets have been so broadly defined that virtually anything — maps, GPS coordinates, even economic statistics — could fall under the category, and officials sometimes use the classification as a way to avoid disclosing information.
Under the new legislation, all internet providers and telecom companies would be required to detect, report and delete information deemed to be disclosing state secrets, the newspaper report said. It did not say what penalties for violations would be.
The draft law leaves a wide scope for what could be considered state secrets, defining them as: "information that concerns state security and interests and, if leaked, would damage state security and interests in the areas of politics, economy and national defense, among others," Xinhua News Agency said.
The draft law was submitted Monday to the National People's Congress Standing Committee for a third review — usually the final stage before being adopted by lawmakers.
Chinese leaders appear determined to monitor the flow of information that reaches the world's largest internet population of 384 million users. The government recently also issued new regulations to tighten procedures for domain name registration and to remove websites that are not officially registered.
Chinese authorities view the control of information as key to heading off or controlling the spread of unrest. After deadly ethnic riots broke out in a Muslim region in western China in July, Beijing blocked Twitter and Facebook, unplugged the internet entirely and slowed cell phone service to stifle reports about the violence. Limited internet and phone texting services were restored in recent months.
However, human rights activists say the information control is used to stifle any challenge to the Communist Party's grip on power and to identify political activists and punish them.
In January, authorities in Xinjiang detained a man who allegedly sent text messages that contained comments about "splitting the country," news reports said. The man who was detained had initially received a warning by the telecommunications company over the contents of his text messages, but he ignored the warning and continued to send the text messages to several other mobile phone numbers.
Chinese authorities also sought to more clearly define commercial secrets by releasing a set of regulations addressed to state-owned enterprises on the website of the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, or SASAC, late Monday.
China's vague definition of commercial secrets came under scrutiny last month after a Shanghai court sentenced to prison four employees of mining giant Rio Tinto, including Australian citizen Stern Hu, who was handed a 10-year sentence for accepting bribes and stealing commercial secrets.
The SASAC notice, which was dated March 25 but posted online Monday, said commercial secrets could include information about strategic planning, business models, restructuring and listing, mergers and acquisitions, property transactions, resources and reserves, and a wide range of other issues.