Beijing Set To Roll Out Massive Free Public WiFi Network This Month (But There’s A Catch)

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At the end of this month, China’s capital city will begin rolling out free WiFi service in various hotspots across the city. The “My Beijing” wireless network, as it is to be called, is backed by three of the country’s largest telecom companies, China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom, and will provide 2Mbps broadband WiFi to approximately 60 percent of Beijing through some 90,000 access points that the municipal government plans implement over the next few years, according to China.org.

The WiFi service will be free to use during the three year pilot program, at the end of which the government may change the model and begin charging individual users or businesses for access — although these terms have not yet been finalized.

Of course, as is often the case, there’s a catch. The Chinese government tightly (some would say oppressively) regulates Internet access throughout the mainland. As the Guardian reported in July, the government has been further clamping down on cafes, hotels, and other businesses offering WiFi to its customers, in some cases requiring these businesses to install surveillance software to monitor Web activity. There has even been the threat of fines or termination of their WiFi service for businesses who do not install the software.

While those strict measures had not yet reached Beijing at the time the article was written, by controlling the Beijing’s new WiFi service, the government can now ensure that it is able to impose its own surveillance standards on users. In this case, in order for “My Beijing” users to gain access to the network, they will be required to enter their mobile cell numbers. Obviously, with the implications of this measure, there has been some harsh criticism. Users rightly worry that offering up their mobile number to gain access could put their personal information at risk, and furthermore, that the state would then be able to monitor browsing history, web activity, etc.

Or, on the flip side, that their mobile numbers will not be sufficiently protected, exposing them to potential harm from spammers or from those looking to sell their numbers to advertising companies and so on. If those in control have users’ phone numbers, promotions and ads could easily end up being later forwarded on to the users’ mobile devices, i.e. potential spamming galore.

And, as they should be, with the Chinese government having control over what could be the largest municipal WiFi network in the world, citizens are worried about the level of restrictions and surveillance that could end up being baked into the city’s WiFi access. It would be one thing if a business or group of businesses were controlling this large network, but considering the Chinese government’s track record, Big Brother-level supervision of the network’s traffic wouldn’t exactly be far-fetched.

However, according to a report by China Daily, an employee in the Beijing branch of the China Mobile Communications Corp (one of the telecoms backing the WiFi network) said that the requirement of inputting a mobile number to log on will “help trace those whose online activity might endanger social security”.

A senior official official at the Beijing Municipal Commission of Economy and Information Technology added that the free WiFi will be put in place to “enhance social wellbeing” and that logging on with a mobile number is simply a way of enabling “identity authentication”.

With coverage planned for 60 percent of Beijing through 480,000 WLAN access points and more than 6,000 hotspots over the next five years, in the big picture this is a laudable move on behalf of the Chinese government to bring free Internet access to a sizable chunk of the near-20 million Beijing residents. It represents the largest initiative in terms of coverage (and number of hotspots) in China to date and will certainly be one of the largest municipal WiFi networks in the world.

On the flip side, it remains to be seen just how tight surveillance and supervision will be for the network. If restrictions remain as stringent as they have been in the past, and security proves to be subpar, the network could end up being a pyrrhic victory for the residents of Beijing.