China bureaucratic war over online Warcraft heats up

BEIJING Wed Nov 4, 2009 2:48am GMT

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BEIJING Nov 4 (Reuters) - China's Culture Ministry has accused the publishing watchdog of abusing its authority by shutting access to the popular online game, World of Warcraft, stoking bureaucratic rivalry over control of the Internet.

The ministry scolded the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP), which had told Chinese online game firm NetEase.com (NTES.O) not to operate the latest version of Activision Blizzard's (ATVI.O) World of Warcraft, the Chinese-language Economic Information Daily said on Wednesday.

The rare public turf war between the two agencies has exposed the tricky regulatory undergrowth that Internet companies must navigate in China.

China's Communist Party leadership has demanded tighter control over the Internet and online gaming, worried about images and ideas it sees as pornographic, unhealthy or subversive.

Government agencies with a stake in the sector have in turn sought to demonstrate their eagerness to enforce those demands, and also competed to stake out control of the potentially lucrative and prestigious sector.

"The Ministry of Culture believes the notice from the General Administration of Press and Publication does not conform to the relevant regulations, and clearly oversteps its authority," said Li Xiong, a Ministry of Culture official in charge of market affairs, according to the paper.

Li's unyielding comments suggested that the bureaucratic warfare over Warcraft, a role-playing game in which subscribers complete quests, slay monsters and fight among themsleves, may not end immediately.

NetEase said on Monday that the GAPP halted and returned its application to operate the latest version of World of Warcraft game due to "gross violations" of regulations. [ID:nN02450107]

The original version of the game is not affected.

GAPP posted a statement on its Web site demanding that NetEase suspend charging users to play the game, and disallow new account registrations, NetEase said.

The move put the recently relaunched popular title's future into question in China, and sent down NetEase and Activision Blizzard shares.

In October, GAPP banned many forms of foreign investment into the country's online games industry, expected to grow 30-50 percent this year to up to $4 billion. [ID:nSHA252963]

But the bureaucratic friction can produce departures from China's usually secretive and unyielding style of government.

In late June, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which has also sought to assert control of Internet content, abruptly discarded a plan to force manufacturers to bundle Internet filtering software with personal computers sold in the country. [ID:nSP514751]

The "Green Dam" plan, which officials said was to stamp out Internet pornography, was to start from July 1, but it was assailed by critics of censorship, industry groups and Washington officials as politically intrusive, technically ineffective and commercially unfair. [ID:nSP491468] (Editing by Ken Wills) ((chris.buckley@thomsonreuters.com; +86-13501014479)) ((If you have a query or comment on this story, send an email to newsfeedback.asia@thomsonreuters.com))

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