China aims to "purify the Internet"

I love that the Internet is a bastion of free speech and open commerce. Thus, you can count me among those raising an eyebrow after reading China's Paramount Leader Hu Jintao declared ambition to "purify the Internet environment."

What that means, precisely, isn't clear -- but it's clearly related to the country's crackdown on blogs and search engines, as well as its successful bid for a censored version of Google to serve its country's ever-increasing population of Internet denizens.

According to a recent report from the China Internet Network Information Center, the number of registered Internet-users in China hit 137 million in 2006 -- an increase of 23.4 percent. China thus now ranks second in Web users after the United States, the organization says. Chinese officials estimate that the country could overtake the U.S. -- which has 210 million Net users -- within two years. (That estimate is a bullish one, granted.)

The point, of course, is that as the country's Net population swells, so too does its economic impact on the Web. That, in turn, gives China some leverage in its Internet-purification scheme. If a company such as Google -- which boasts the informal motto of "Don't be evil" -- is willing to cash in on China's Internet presence at the expense of censoring the information it delivers, what's to stop other companies, both present and future, from following suit?

According to reports, "[Hu Jianto] told officials to intensify control [over the Internet] even as they seek to release the Internet's economic potential. 'Ensure that one hand grasps development while one hand grasps administration.'"

Then again, there will always be demand for the type of content and, well, general freedom on the Internet that Communist China-friendly companies won't supply. Thus those of us living outside of the country needn't worry about losing access to, say, information about, say, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.