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Beijing rolling out huge, free WiFi network in November

Posted at 03 November 2011 01:29 CEST by etdragon

The city of Beijing is getting set to launch a massive, free, public WiFi network at the end of this month. The service will be called the “My Beijing” wireless network and it will be backed by three of the country’s most prominent telecommunications companies, China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom. The initiative will provide 2Mbps broadband WiFi to about 60 percent of Beijing by providing 90,000 access points which will be implemented over a few years time.

The WiFi network has been confirmed to be free to use during the first three years of its existence. The government is going to access the service after that time and determine if it makes sense to charge individual users or business to use it. The thing is there is a major catch. China is very well known for its strict regulation of Internet access in mainland regions. In some regions the government has started going after hotels, cafes, and other companies offering free WiFi to customers. Those businesses are being required to install monitoring software on their networks to keep an eye on customer network activity.

The “My Beijing” WiFi network looks like it may be targeted by similar measures. The catch to using that free network is that each user will have to input their mobile phone number to gain access. There are a number of major concerns about this requirement. It opens users up to monitoring of web browsing habits as well as provides the government direct access to personal information. The other problem is there are no standards in place for how those numbers will be protected. WiFi network users could be opened up to spamming or having their numbers sold off to advertising companies.

A recent report published by China Daily cites an employee working in the Beijing branch of China Mobile who has said that the idea of requiring the mobile phone number is to “help trace those whose online activity might endanger social security”.

In response to public concerns about privacy and tracking, Zhang Shimin, a senior official of the commission said the idea of free WiFi is to improve wellbeing and the mobile number is only for “identity authentication”.

While that comment is coming from a single employee, it seems quite ominous. The implication is that users of the network are being monitored by these telecomm companies and potentially the government itself for suspicious activity. Hopefully this isn’t the case and the number is simply used as a way of authenticating a user. If network monitoring and usage policies are strict and user information is not kept private, this whole network will feel less like a win for the people of Beijing.

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