A devastating earthquake and the approaching Olympic Games has the Chinese government loosening Internet censorship restrictions and even unblocking access to some Internet websites suggesting a revised censorship policy. The Chin

ese government has allowed a free flow of Internet information following a flurry of online and cell phone activity from citizens who are desperate to stay informed of the outcome of last week’s earthquake.   What’s more, Chinese citizens continue to exchange uncensored opinions related to the disaster using Internet blogs, instant messages, and text messages - forms of communication normally blocked by the People's Republic of China (PRC) government.   The PRC could continue with the new rules as cyber communication helps to quickly spread news and initiate aid to rural communities. "The general atmosphere for coverage seems to remain relatively open," said David Bandurski, a researcher with the University of Hong Kong's China Media Project as reported in The National Post. "While media have been instructed to follow the lead of central party media -- Xinhua News Agency, CCTV and company -- regional commercial media can and are, for the moment, pursuing the story with intensity." China may be slowly turning a corner, but The Technology Ministry says controls will remain in place and discussions monitored. So far, only 17 people have been held and charged with “spreading false information” since the PRC relaxed its controls. The free flow of opinions since the quake follows the March agreement with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to unblock access to some Internet websites belonging to hotels, conference centers, cafes, and including most of the English Wikipedia.    The PRC has long controlled the type of information made available to its citizens while currently boasting the largest number of Internet and mobile phone users anywhere in the world.   The government originally began curtailing critical online opinion after a string of protests speaking out against Chinese environmental destruction, humanitarian violations, and corruption, many of which were popularized and planned by way of instant messaging services, chat rooms and text messages.   In an effort to restrain government dissidence, the PRC created more than sixty Internet regulations to comply with the wide variety of laws and regulations governing Internet speech. And, an Internet task force of over 30,000 mostly works as censors and monitors to remove critical commentary on blogs and Internet forums.   The blocks, however, tend to be uncoordinated and random with some sites blocked while others with similar content are allowed to continue.    The devastating quake and China’s desire to assert itself as a world power at the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing may have China viewing the threat of free online communication differently.   The U.S. and other Western countries, however, continue to criticize China’s control over free speech while several American companies have been scrutinized for business partnerships with China.   Just this week, Cisco was again accused of collaborating with the Chinese to fight government dissidence. A recently uncovered PowerPoint slide from a 2002 Cisco presentation for the Chinese government suggests Cisco engineered equipment to support China’s Great Firewall, or information control strategy. Cisco denies the accusation.   In 2005, Yahoo!, Inc. invested in 40 percent of Chinese website Alibaba.com and has since merged its Chinese operations with Alibaba to create one of the largest Internet companies in China. As a result, Alibaba controls Yahoo's Chinese operations and fulfills the government’s requests for customer information.   Amid the accusations that companies may be supporting the Chinese government, Yahoo, Google, Microsoft and others agreed in January 2007 to work with human rights groups to establish a voluntary code of conduct that would help ease censorship and protect user information. An agreement has yet to be reached.   By Kathleen Clark   FEEDBACK For comments on this article, email us at editorial@atelier-us.com