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China to Crack Down on Illegal Internet Phone Services

China says it cracking down on illegal Internet phone services, a move that could affect people who use popular services such as Skype to make cheap calls in the country.

China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology announced the crackdown in a brief notice on its website. It did not say what actions will be taken against illegal Internet phone providers or give a timetable for the measures.

China has licensed only two companies to offer voice calls linking computers to telephones - state-run firms China Telecom and China Unicom, which currently provide the service in four cities on a trial basis.

A professor at the Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications says the crackdown appears aimed at protecting the commercial interests of the state-run operators from competition by Skype, which offers cheaper call rates. Kan Kaili criticized the Chinese government's move, saying any ban on Skype would hurt consumers.

Skype had no immediate comment. It was not clear if the crackdown will affect voice calls made between computers, another popular Skype service.

China is a major market for Internet phone services. Official statistics show the number of Internet users in the country rose to 450 million over the past year, a 20 percent increase from 2009. About 34 percent of the population connects to the Web, exceeding the 30 percent global average.

Officials say China's booming Internet usage also has encouraged cyber criminal activities such as pornography. The government says it shut down more than 60,000 pornographic websites this year and arrested about 5,000 suspects.

Beijing has established an extensive Internet filtering system that blocks content it deems harmful or politically sensitive, a system critics have dubbed the "Great Firewall of China."