Although China banned press coverage, the thousands of Chinese who hit the streets this past month in anti-Japan protests connected via cell phones and text messages.

Now, reports The New York Times, China has banned cell phones and text messaging used to organize protests.

“They are afraid the Chinese people will think, O.K., today we protest Japan; tomorrow, Japan,” said an Asian diplomat who has watched the protests closely. “But the day after tomorrow, how about we protest against the government?

Below: How far China has gone to surveil Web and cell phone messages? What about other countries?

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usOthers in Shanghai learned of the march from an Internet posting that included a suggested route for the march and tips like bringing dry food and not bringing Japanese cameras. Some people wondered if the government had planted it online.

In the past, the government has shown it can tighten monitoring of these technologies. Security officials are thought to be able to track a person’s whereabouts by intercepting cellphone transmissions.

The government began cracking down on people using these technologies to foment anti-Japanese protests more than a week ago, before the Shanghai march. According to an employee at a major Internet provider, the government on April 14 ordered all Chinese Web sites to begin filtering anti-Japanese content. Then last week, several anti-Japanese Web sites were shut down because they were trying to organize new protests in May.

One Western analyst in Internet technology said the government has powerful filtering devices that can screen cellphone and e-mail messages. This filtering technology can separate messages with key words such as Falun Gong, the banned spiritual group, and then track the message to the person who sent it.

Falun Gong, in fact, used cell phones to coordinate protests until the government deemed the group a threat and launched a crackdown.

“There are things the bureaucracy could do if it found this sort of communication truly threatening,” said the Internet technology analyst, who has studied China for more than a decade and asked not to be identified.

Yet many analysts agree that screening the Internet and cellphones is far more difficult than the practice of simply ordering state-controlled newspapers or television stations to censor a subject.

One reason is that a growing number of young Chinese have multiple e-mail accounts, including some with providers based outside China that are not filtered. … NYT

For more background on the Chinese protests against Japan, see Other Lisa‘s diaries, including “Riot Tourists.”

And, please share how you’ve found that the U.S. and other governments have cracked down on protest communications and protest sites? What else is in the offing for governmental control of free speech?

One of the most chilling things I heard this weekend was on Air America’s “Ring of Fire” (archives), which replayed a Bill Moyers interview. Moyers warned strongly against corporate centralization of broadband and other Internet access, saying it will stifle and curtail free speech. Stating the obvious, corporate consolidation poses as great a threat to free speech as the government. Your thoughts …

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