Steven Millward
Steven Millward
7:38 pm on Dec 28, 2012

China internet law legalizes censorship

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.

  • Fons Tuinstra

    This is going to be interesting for sure, as internet companies will face huge costs in setting up a working real-name verification.
    One punishment for companies who do not comply has already been used. You might remember that Tudou was out of the air for week for ‘technical reasons’ in the past. An obvious punishment for not complying on time to existing regulations.
    The details will be rather important, and it might reshape the internet landscape in China yet again, as some firms have enough capital to follow the still unclear rules, while others might be pushed into bankruptcy (especially Sina).

  • Lawrence

    Real name verification isn’t going to cost huge amounts Fons. Its mostly a solved problem technically.

    Its most likely going to be tied to SMS for the larger providers. Eg sign up, confirm account by typing in an SMS sent to your signup phone number (for which telephone service has already required real name verification for a while now), and voila, implemented. There are a number of providers who have been doing this for a while now – Sina is one. SMS gateway pricing has gotten cheap enough now, thats its a minimal add on cost. It also puts the onus on someone else – the Telco. I expect quite a bit of back and forth on that internally if there are issues – eg who /is/ to blame?

    Also remember that once you’re registered “real name” on one service, you can often use that login elsewhere. Eg if you login via Weibo, you can login at a few other places, as weibo offers a fairly usable API to do that sort of thing. That may actually help the “one login” for all services that we’ve been promised for years now elsewhere. The west has had the use your Facebook login for comments for a while too on a lot of sites. I’m not condoning it though.

    Domain registrations have required real name verification for more than a year now, and I personally know what a headache that was for us and our clients!. The paperwork for that *is* onerous, and the rules did change repeatedly vis a vis requirements for the first few months, but it seems to have settled down now finally, and now its just another added cost for both the consumer and provider to deal with.

    I firmly expect “real name” verification to be more of the same.
    Sure, its getting harder, and there are ever more things you need to do, follow, and be careful of, but its no different from business overseas, albeit in a different manner.

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