updated 12/3/2008 5:47:19 PM ET 2008-12-03T22:47:19

Requirements that Internet cafes in a southern Chinese city install Chinese-developed operating systems are raising new concerns over cyber snooping by authorities, a U.S. government-funded radio station reported Wednesday.

The new rules that went into effect Nov. 5 are aimed at cracking down on the use of pirated software, said Hu Shenghua, a spokesman for the Culture Bureau in the city of Nanchang.

Internet cafe operators are required to remove unlicensed software and replace it with legitimate copies of either Microsoft Windows or China's homegrown Red Flag Linux operating system while paying a fee, he said.

However, Radio Free Asia said cafes were being required to install Red Flag Linux even if they were using authorized copies of Windows. It quoted Xiao Qiang, director of the California-based China Internet Project, as saying the new rules would help authorities regulate Internet cafes that now operate on the margins of the law, and allow them to undertake heightened surveillance.

Chinese who access the Web at Internet cafes are already required to register with their identification cards. Whether accessed from home or an Internet cafe, the Web within China is regularly patrolled by specially trained monitors looking for content deemed politically subversive or related to gambling, pornography, or illegal business dealings.

Large numbers of Web sites are blocked and dozens of Chinese citizens have been arrested for accessing or sending politically sensitive information over the Web. They include a former Shanghai university librarian imprisoned for three and a half years last month for downloading and distributing information about the banned Falun Gong spiritual group.

Despite such prosecutions, China has the world's largest population of Internet users with 253 million, and authorities are eager to encourage Internet usage as a driver for commerce. Internet cafes are patronized mainly by migrant workers, the rural poor and online gaming enthusiasts.

A woman reached by phone at Nanchang's Junlin Internet Cafe said officials came last month to replace the pirated software they were using. The woman, who gave only her surname, Wang, declined to identify the new operating system but said the new regulations had increased costs "dramatically," while customers had been pleased by the improved performance.

Fan Hongguan, a spokesman for Beijing-based Red Flag Software company said the company had been marketing a version of the operating system with chat functions to Internet cafes for three years. Fan declined to comment on the surveillance allegations.

"It makes sense for Internet cafes to use (Red Flag) because of their high user traffic and the system's safeguards against viruses," Fan said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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