The Chinese government could be about to relax its strict censorship laws, albeit only in a small area of one of its cities.
The South China Morning Post reports that Facebook, Twitter and other websites will be unblocked in a free-trade zone of Shanghai, reports the BBC.
An unnamed official said the move was to make foreigners "feel at home."
Facebook and Twitter have been blocked since 2009, following riots which the government blamed on social networks. The Chinese government routinely censors the internet and blocks access to websites it deems inappropriate or politically sensitive, according to the BBC.
Chinese government sources told the South China Morning Post on Tuesday that Internet users in the Shanghai Free-Trade Zone, which covers 11 square miles, will be allowed to access Web content free of government censorship, including the aforementioned social media. These government sources also told the South China Morning Post that China is inviting foreign telecommunications firms to bid for licenses to provide Internet services in that zone, according to usnews.com.
"In order to welcome foreign companies to invest and to let foreigners live and work happily in the free-trade zone, we must think about how we can make them feel like at home. If they can't get onto Facebook or read The New York Times, they may naturally wonder how special the free-trade zone is compared with the rest of China," one of the unnamed government sources told the South China Morning Post.
The Shanghai Free-Trade Zone is the first free trade area in mainland China with economic freedoms similar to Hong Kong. Both are centers of international business. Government sources previously told the Post that the free-trade zone could be eventually expanded to include the surrounding Pudong district. Other Chinese cities are also lobbying for zones with economic freedoms, reports usnews.com.
This move to remove Web censorship in a financial district of Shanghai highlights the stark difference in restrictions on Internet access allowed to regions of China including Tibet, says Madeline Earp, a research analyst at the Internet freedom research project at the Freedom House advocacy group.
"They want to keep domestic users away from information they think needs to be controlled," Earp says, according to usnews.com. "The government is very relaxed about foreigners using the Internet. They are not the ones the government is concerned about."
The South China Morning Post also reports that the government is inviting bids from foreign telecoms firms to bid for licenses to provide internet services in the zone.
While some see the move as a crumbling of the famous Great Firewall of China, others are not so impressed, reports the BBC.
"Small steps forward in China may be good news, but what is really important is that US web companies do not co-operate with any Chinese government requests," said Jim Killock, director of the Open Rights Group.