China’s Mobile Internet: Great Walled Garden?

The Internet is indispensable in Chinese modern culture. Government-mandated “only children” use the Web to interact with peers they way they once did with siblings. The Internet cafe has become a modern equivalent of the Chinese tea house, an important fixture in a society where not everyone can afford home connections. Thus the migration of the Web from computers to mobile phones in China is perhaps more critical than in other countries.

Some impactful events have/are happening. The number of mobile Web users has grown tremendously. 3G is becoming a reality after years of promise. And the country’s biggest carrier has cut mobile Internet fees, making it more accessible and desirable for more consumers. But–to use a way-overused metaphor when talking anything Asia–you can’t have yin without yang. As cell phones with Internet become as common as web-connected PCs, so will the travails of online usage. Most importantly, censorship that blocks even messages that aren’t considered subversive or sensitive.

“It’s a good point; I think that the primary issue is closeness between mobile carriers and the government, any government,” Danny O’Brien, International Outreach Coordinator for the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, tells me when I cite my concerns. “One of the reasons why the Internet has traditionally benefited from a more open infrastructure is because there has been a choice of ISPs, the barrier to entry to ISPs is low and largely unregulated, and there can be any number of ISPs. The small number of potential mobile operators makes it more likely that pressure can be placed on this group, and also that they can effectively restrict the market by all making the same choices about what they offer.”

First, the good news. The growth of mobile Internet users rose a whopping 133 percent in one year, to 117.6 million people in 2008, says the government bureau China Internet Network Information Centre. Then there’s the ever-present spectre of 3G phone cellular service, which for the good part of a decade has been “just around the corner.” It’s finally moved forward, with the awarding of three government contracts to telecom companies with three different technology standards. Perhaps in preparation for the greater availability of mobile Internet that’s bound to result from this, China’s biggest carrier, China Mobile, has cut Internet fees by up to 70 percent. This is expected to draw more of the 600-plus million Chinese handset users the service.

Besides Internet, more established ways of communicating on a mobile phone–specifically, SMS/texting–has become better for legitimate mobile marketers. True, texting was mainstream in China long before North America, but SMS spam became a big there as well. Last March, the government shut down text spammers, dampening even the big Chinese digital media company Focus Media, which had purchased an SMS spam company. By quashing those who give mobile marketing a bad name, legit marketers have a chance to prove that mobile marketing is actually beneficial to consumers.

All this means that mobile Internet could dominate overall online usage in China. As you may remember, I’ve touched on this type of migration–check here and here. But that could mean phone users will suffer the same travails as PC users in China.

Take computer viruses. One of my fondest memories of living in Beijing was the vast proliferation of malware, which took down my work computers much of the time. China is an especially plagued country, because most people use pirated software. In turn, AV specialist BitDefender says that mobile malware could explode, and forecast 2009 as “one of the most productive years in terms of mobile e-threats.” So the same problems with computers could be set to migrate to phones.

A greater worry, of course, is censorship. ISPs cooperate with the Chinese government to block so-called sensitive information. In truth, this is more slight annoyance than heavy oppression. Very occasionally, Internet connections would go down for a couple of hours, rumored to be due to some kind of crackdown. Meanwhile, people who want to research someone related to Falun Gong or the Tienanmen Square “incident” of 1989 would just have to use other words than these–slightly tedious but definitely workable.

The Chinese mobile networks of course are going to do whatever the government tells them–but the rub is that minor inconveniences would be much more problematic for a mobile user. Those searching for information on their cells are probably in immediate need of that info. Maybe they’re looking for a place where they’re headed, or for sales information, or need to check their mobile email. By limiting access or being unreliable, the Chinese mobile Internet could become the Great Walled Garden.

Right now, the Chinese government has dedicated itself to mobile porn–smart, since few people are going to vocalize against a war on smut on cells. The Ministry of Public Security claims to have shut some 1,250 porn web sites. Earlier this month, the MPS and four other ministries announced a special campaign against the spread of obscene videos through mobiles. Shops and vendors that provide online download services for handsets will be targeted, as well as websites that can be accessed via phone.

The success of the anti-porn war should be watched carefully, since methods used therein could be used to censor a broader range of topics. After all, the anti-SMS spam move was foremost targeted at those who sent socio-political information–such as where a political rally might meet–via text. Mobile marketers should keep alert.