China relaxes bans on Internet access

The Chinese government has eased restrictions on Western news sites on the Internet but stopped short of allowing completely unfettered access to information from outside its borders. It is nearly a year since China slapped bans on sites such as such as those of CNN, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, but the country's rulers may now be acknowleding the realities of the Internet.

The Chinese government has eased restrictions on Western news sites on the Internet but stopped short of allowing completely unfettered access to information from outside its borders.

Early last year, China had blocked some 100 World Wide Web sites, including those run by news organizations such as CNN, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. Bans on the news sites were removed in December, but restrictions remain in place on sites that offer politically sensitive or pornographic material, the Asian Wall Street Journal reports.

Sites that offer news and commentary from Hong Kong and Taiwan remain off limits, as do Chinese-language sites and those sponsored by Chinese dissident groups overseas, the Journal says.

China appears to be taking a more selective approach to Internet restrictions, the reports say.

"Some newspapers, magazines, articles and publications [on the Internet] that were sensitive to the mainland were blocked ... but after checks they were reopened," said an unnamed official of China's State Council, quoted by the Reuters News Service. "Time was needed to clarify matters."

Political infighting may have contributed to the relaxation. The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications and other departments apparently were unhappy with the bans imposed by the State Security Bureau, Reuters said, citing an unnamed Internet expert based in Beijing.

In addition, China may be acknowledging the difficulty of containing a medium as diverse and unruly as the Internet, according to industry observers.

While specific sites are relatively easy to block, Internet users in China could receive banned news and information through e-mail, on which there are fewer limits. They could also look at all of the Internet by dialing access numbers outside the country or go to banned sites indirectly via unrestricted sites.

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