China’s tightened internet controls were passed into law earlier today. As well as requiring broadband and mobile internet providers to have full ‘real name’ details of their customers (which pretty much happens already), the new 12-article law also mandates how all web companies operating in China must control what people post. That effectively legalizes the deletion of posts that contain what authorities deem to be “illegal” content or information.
Again, that’s close to what happens already in practice with the blanket self-censorship and fast-paced moderation that goes on on the Chinese web, as seen very clearly on the Twitter-like Sina Weibo. And so the new law will criminalize companies who do not censor the web with the kind of speed and efficiency that the law now dictates. That has huge implications for social companies like Sina (NASDAQ:SINA), Tencent (HKG:0700), and Renren (NYSE:RENN), and search engines from Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU), Sohu (NASDAQ:SOHU), and Qihoo (NYSE:QIHU). In fact, it’s an extra strain on the whole internet sector in the country, with possible extra costs involved in the already weighty and arduous practice of removing dissent, as well as other genuinely illegal acts on the web.
It’s surely only a matter of time before one Chinese web company is held criminally responsible for content posted on its service. And what will happen then? A fine? The jailing of the relevant member of staff?
Using Xinhua’s presumably official version of events, the news agency summarizes this aspect of the new law:
Service providers are required to instantly stop the transmission of illegal information once it is spotted and take relevant measures, including removing the information and saving records, before reporting to supervisory authorities, the decision says.
It empowers supervising departments to take technical and other necessary measures to prevent, stop or punish those who infringe on online privacy, requiring relevant service providers to give support during investigations.
There are some positive aspects to all this, as it also puts into law measures that, Xinhua says, “will protect digital information that could be used to determine the identity of a user or that concerns a user’s privacy.”
But as with all new web controls in China, a country where the web is already massively locked down, many will worry that the tightened legal framework will be used to identify people who post online some ‘sensitive’ information, such as – to take a topical example – evidence of corruption among officials.
In practice, a lot of this is happening already, as with recent real name requirements for microblogs like Sina Weibo, or the long-standing need to show ID when buying a mobile SIM. For now, a lot of questions remain unanswered, such as how this affects wifi hotspots, or people who rent homes and whose broadband account will be in the name of the home-owner – and a lot of other issues and unknowns.