In August, China’s State Internet Information Office passed a new set of Internet regulations on the use of instant messaging services, requiring users to authenticate their identities and demanding that service providers obtain qualifications. Hu Yong, a professor at Peking University’s School of Journalism and Communication, takes a detailed look at the new regulations and their implications. Hu argues that the rules impose “economic roadblocks” that will stifle further development of China’s online economy, while limiting the overseas expansion of services like Tencent’s WeChat. From China File:
4. What’s “new” in the new WeChat regulations?
Probably the most important new twist is a stricter control over grassroots media—the kind of unofficial, amateur journalism practiced on WeChat using “public accounts.”
[…] The grassroots media sensation really took off with the advent of mobile web technology, which introduced new ways of producing and disseminating content. It reached its culmination in WeChat, whose public accounts, introduced on August 23, 2012, allowed individuals and organizations to create mass postings of text, pictures, recordings, and later video. This turned WeChat from a private communication tool into a media platform. At the same time, because users could form circles, WeChat had the potential to become a tool for social organization—much more so than Weibo had been.
This prompted the Internet monitors to step up their game, and at least on paper their regulation of WeChat public accounts has been far stricter than their policing of Weibo’s Big V users [its most influential users, who have been verified not to be posting under a pseudonym]. Right now, a Weibo account with several million followers doesn’t need any “qualifications”; but a WeChat public account with a couple thousand subscribers does. Of course, we don’t know whether a similar set of regulations governing Weibo’s Big Vs is waiting in the wings.
All this hammers home how risky the media business is in China, since it’s so vulnerable to the shifting winds of government policy.
[…] When the new regulations are put into practice they will probably be selectively enforced and frequently flouted, because they are so incomplete. The problem with the Chinese government’s Internet regulations is that they are often ambiguous and too broad in scope, which turns ordinary people involved in everyday activities into potential targets for attack. The ambiguous nature of these regulations gives Internet monitors a great deal of latitude when it comes to enforcing the law. Monitoring can be easily taken to extremes, like when the city of Zhaoqing in Guangdong province recently ordered all owners of WeChat public accounts to register in person at the Public Security Bureau. [Source]
Since the new Internet regulations took effect, hundreds of WeChat accounts have been suspended or permanently removed.