China Imposes New Restrictions on Instant Messaging

Beijing’s recent efforts to tighten control over the Internet have so far included a crackdown on online rumors given partial credit for prompting a mass exodus from microblogging platform Sina Weibo to private messaging services, a subsequent crackdown on Tencent’s instant messaging app WeChat (and month-long renewal), and an ongoing anti-vulgarity drive. Yesterday, China’s State Internet Information Office (SIIO) announced new rules for users of instant messaging platforms. The China Copyright and Media blog has translated the new regulations in full. From Xinhua:

The Chinese government has passed a regulation that will require users of instant messaging services to use real names when registering in an effort to hold users responsible for content.

[…] Targeting China’s 5.8 million public accounts on subscription-based mobile apps such as Tencent’s mobile text and voice messaging service WeChat, the new regulation will take immediate effect.

Registrants of public accounts are obliged to register with real names and reviewed by service providers before being qualified to release information.

“A few people are using the platforms to disseminate information related to terrorism, violence and pornography as well as slander and rumors,” said Jiang Jun, spokesman of the SIIO. “Such behaviors have raised bitter feelings among netizens.” [Source]

Reuters quotes an expert predicting that these new rules could muffle conversations on WeChat, just as prior campaigns had chilled the once-lively social atmosphere on Weibo:

Last year, China launched a campaign to clamp down on online rumour mongering and ‘clean up’ the internet. The crackdown has led to an exodus of users from Twitter-like microblog platforms such as Weibo Corp’s Weibo after authorities detained hundreds of outspoken users.

[…] These new regulations could have a similar effect to the one seen on Weibo last year.

The rules “could cool down the traffic of WeChat public accounts and discourage journalists from setting up individual WeChat public accounts,” said Fu King-wa, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Journalism and Media Studies Centre.

Tencent said it would work within the new regulations which it stressed would only apply to public accounts and not to everyday users. [Source]

Just prior to the release of the SIIO rules, the South China Morning Post noted that Tencent had independently announced it would be targeting “fraud, pornography and ‘spreading rumors’,” creating anxiety among some users that a fresh wave of Internet censorship was looming:

The statement came amid widespread speculation among mobile social-media users that a new crackdown by government censors could be looming.

The internet on the mainland is under intense censorship because of government fears it could pose a threat to the Communist Party’s dominance.

[…] Public WeChat accounts are typically used by individuals or companies to broadcast to subscribers. They have become a major source of news for mainland users but have drawn the attention of the censors. [Source]

In a recent interview with state media, an SIIO spokesperson answered a question about free speech concerns by saying that, actually, these regulations protect “true free speech.” From Xinhua, as translated by China Copyright and Media:

Q: Some netizens say that the “Regulations” stifle speech, how do you see this?

A: It is quite the opposite, the publication of the “Regulations” benefits the protection of true free speech. Our cyberspace cannot become a disorderly, pell-mell space full of transgression. No country in the world permits the dissemination of rumours, violent, fraudulent, sexual or terrorist information. Freedom and order are a dialectical relationship, any person’s freedom must be exercised within the scope of the law, baselines cannot be broken, and this would impede other persons’ freedom. [Source]

In response to an upswing in violent attacks blamed by the government on Xinjiang separatists, China is also currently engaged in an “ultra-tough” anti-terror crackdown, including a campaign against “violent Internet content” in which 32 were recently imprisoned for using the Internet to spread “violent content.”  Many of Tencent’s competitors in the instant messaging market are based outside of Beijing, and hence less reliably subject to Beijing’s jurisdiction. From Seoul, Reuters reports that China has also blocked several Korean services from use in the mainland, citing terrorism concerns:

Chinese authorities say they have blocked messaging apps KakaoTalk and Line as part of efforts to fight terrorism, South Korea said on Thursday, the first official explanation of service disruptions in China that began a month ago.

South Korea’s Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning said China had confirmed it had blocked “some foreign messaging applications through which terrorism-related information” was circulating. It named the other blocked apps as Didi, Talk Box and Vower.

[…] China had informed South Korea that terrorist organizations were plotting or inciting attacks and spreading information about how to make bombs through channels such as mobile messaging apps and video websites, the South Korean ministry said. [Source]

Coverage from the Financial Times notes that “Beijing has been suspicious of any foreign Internet sites whose servers are located outside China and are thus difficult to monitor,” giving the standing restrictions on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google as examples.