(New York) – The Chinese government should scrap provisions in the proposed Cybersecurity Law that require Internet companies to practice censorship, register users’ real names, localize data, and aid government surveillance, Human Rights Watch said today in a submission to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee.

The homepages of Baidu and Google.

The draft law will further stifle peaceful speech online, which is one of the only means people in China have to publicly express their opinions.

“While the Chinese government is known for its obsession with Internet control, the draft law sends a clear and chilling message of intent to further control online expression,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “The law will effectively put China’s Internet companies, and hundreds of millions of Internet users, under greater state control.”

Specifically, Human Rights Watch is concerned that the draft law will:

  • Require companies to censor and restrict online anonymity;
  • Require companies to store user data in China;
  • Require companies to monitor and report to the government undefined “network security incidents,” raising fears of increased surveillance; and
  • Have inadequate safeguards to protect privacy.

Internet companies in China are already expected to censor messages, assist police in tracking down Internet users who post messages critical of the government, and require users to register with their real personal information, but enforcement of these rules has been uneven. Requiring them to do so in a specific national law may reduce the leeway and differing levels of implementation among companies that currently exists, which has been exploited by Internet users to get their messages out despite censorship.

The Chinese government jails the highest number of journalists and online bloggers in the world, with at least 44 known cases in 2014. Internet companies’ cooperation with the authorities in aiding Internet control have led to devastating consequences for users. In 2005, the journalist Shi Tao was convicted of “leaking state secrets” to an overseas website after an Internet company – Yahoo! – handed over his account details to the police. Shi served more than eight years in prison.

The Cybersecurity Law is the last of a recent set of new national security related pieces of legislation made public by the Chinese for consultation since November 2014, which includes the State Security Law, the draft Counterterrorism Law, and the draft Foreign NGO Management Law. Together, these laws wrongly promote the idea that peaceful criticism against the government is a threat to state security.

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“The set of new state security laws construct an interlocking web that reinforces the government’s grip of power and internal stability,” Richardson said. “The already limited space for expression in China appears set to shrink in the coming years.”