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Innovation

China opens 'free' public Wi-Fi; Faces scrutiny over tracking, censorship

In an effort to promote internet usage and create a 'wireless city', Beijing is adding new Wi-Fi hotspots to public areas like shopping malls and stations.
Written by Hana Stewart-Smith, Contributor on

In an effort to increase web use amongst residents, Beijing is launching a series of new Wi-Fi hotspots in major public areas.

China's capital city already has free Wi-Fi areas across seven districts, but wants to offer more free wireless in public areas like shopping malls and subway stations. This week several shopping centers in the Shijingshan district began offering wireless services, with many more planned to follow.

City officials say they want Beijing to be a leading "wireless city" on the world stage.

Mao Dongjun, a director at the Beijing Municipal Commission of Economy and Information Technology, said the Wi-Fi networks are intended as a public service for residents.

"The telecom operators have developed so many networks, we hope that users can experience and enjoy them", Mao said.

These free networks do, however, come with a catch. Users are required to register with a mobile phone, giving them access to a password that gives them three hours of network use. Although Mao assured that this personal data would be safe, this might not reassure some users.

This is standard protocol for using networks in China; with photo ID required to use computers in Internet cafés, and phone numbers required to log on at Starbucks for example.

However, handing over a mobile number to use the networks would potentially allow activities and browsing to be tracked. Censorship and scrutiny are nothing new to Chinese web users, but providing a number and a physical location would allow for even tighter observation.

At this point none of the networks will be operated by the City Government themselves, but by three state-owned telecom operators. The government is compensating for the costs of running the networks, which will be available free for at least three years.

It is somewhat ironic that a country with a history of censorship and tight regulations over the Internet would be so invested in encouraging its use.

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