China's Internet growth speeding up


BEIJIJNG -- After a year of massive growth, China is kicking off its Olympic year with 210 million Internet users, just 5 million behind the U.S. and its title of world's largest Internet market.

The China Internet Network Information Center said in a report released Thursday that, in 2007, China's number of Internet users shot up 53% from the 137 million counted at the end of 2006. At the end of June, that number stood at 162 million.

About 16% of the Chinese population now has access to the Internet. The global average is 19%, the report said.

China's rapid Internet growth poses many problems -- commercial, political and social.

On Thursday, a senior government official told state media that despite repeated crackdowns on online piracy, China still faces a challenge to protect intellectual property rights.

"Internet copyright infringement is still very prevalent in the country," Yan Xiaohong, vice-minister of the National Copyright Administration told official news agency Xinhua.

Yan attributed the situation to the rapid development of the Internet industry and light punishment for violators and pledged to work more closely with both the justice and telecommunications authorities to curb infringements.

The CNNIC report showed that China has 1.5 million Web sites, up 78% year-to-year.

China is said to employ tens of thousands of Internet police to monitor Web sites for content objectionable to the Communist Party, such as pornography, political dissent or non-approved religions.

Last year, China began sending male and female animated police officers across Web sites nationwide to remind surfers that their Web access is monitored.

The cartoon officials began regular patrols of China's top 13 portal sites every half-hour from Sept. 1. Authorities closed down 62,600 illegal Web sites during 2007.

Liu Yunshan, head of the publicity department of the party's Central Committee, told a national teleconference that "unswerving efforts should be made to protect intellectual property rights and to fight various illegal publications so as to maintain a sound cultural environment."

China is under increased pressure from world governments to clamp down on piracy.

On Thursday in Washington, U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab, in remarks to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, reiterated America's reliance on the World Trade Organization to help it fight China's failure to crack down on piracy and solve other trade disputes brought to the WTO last year.

"We fully expect the WTO to begin handing down decisions early this year that vindicate our claims in the remaining three cases -- auto parts, intellectual property rights enforcement and market access," Schwab said.