“Speech is Free; Rumors are Not”

Following the announcement of new restrictions on instant messaging and a fresh string of arrests, detentions and warnings over alleged rumor-mongering, David Bandurski translates a People’s Daily editorial defending government control of social media. From China Media Project:

[Mark Twain once said that,] “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” In the information age, the challenges posed to people by rumors mount every day. No responsible government can look on and disregard such a situation. It’s for this reason that a spokesperson from the State Internet Information Office said in response to the “Ten WeChat Rules” (微信十条) that no country on earth permits the spread of rumors, or information pertaining to violence, fraud, pornography and terrorism. Our online space cannot become a chaotic space full of rage.

[…] Some people believe that freedom of speech implies the right to speak in error, and that tolerance toward rumors means the protection of the right to speak — and conversely, that punishing rumors place limitations on speech freedom. This view is completely specious. As a legal right and a political right, free speech is the freedom to express one’s views, and the rational basis for this is tolerance for subjective likes and dislikes, the admission that views are pluralistic. And just as any freedom has its limits, free speech has its limits. The protection of the right to “say the wrong thing” does not mean toleration of deliberate rumors. Saying the wrong thing and manufacturing rumors are fundamentally different in nature. […] [Source]

Xinhua urged critics of the new regulations to read them again:

The rules did not come out of nowhere. They were rolled out in line with the nation’s established laws and regulations in light of new mobile phone technologies.

[…] Similar regulations were passed for microblogging service Sina Weibo in 2012.

But handling rumors and harmful information on instant messaging services poses a graver challenge for the government than microblogging services.

Compared with the latter, which have more than 500 million registered users, instant messaging services have more than 800 million users – more than twice the population of the United States and about 12 times that of Britain.

If instant messaging services are used by rumormongers and terrorists to spread panic or terror video and audio, the public’s rights, interests and security will be in great danger. [Source]

The new emphasis on instant messaging over microblogging reflects a pronounced and widely discussed shift in user activity between the two types of platform. Although Xinhua claims that the new rules are “in line with established laws,” several prominent lawyers questioned the legal basis of the “straightjacket” for online rumors when the issue previously flared up last autumn.

Search firm Baidu was caught on another prong of the government’s Internet cleanup campaign this week, as Beijing’s Cultural Law Enforcement Agency accused it of “slackness” in policing its cloud storage service for pornographic files. In April, fellow Chinese Internet giant Sina suffered license revocations, fines, and criminal prosecutions for “imperiling social morals” by hosting lewd content. The accuracy of the SIIO spokesman’s statement that no other country permits the spread of information related to pornography is open to question, however, as are the motives of China’s crackdowns on it.