China Unveils New Regulations Requiring Sites To Pre-Censor All Comments

from the yeah,-sure-that’ll-work dept

As we see more and more western countries looking to regulate the internet in order to stifle speech they dislike, we’ve noted how much these efforts seem to be almost directly modeled on how China censors the internet. You might think that would be a reason to run in the other direction, but too many policymakers seem to now view China’s Great Firewall as a success story to be followed. And, now they may get some new ideas, as China has pushed out a draft of revisions to its regulations regarding online commenting. And, while some of it is unclear, it appears to include a provision saying that services that enable comments need to have tools in place to review every comment before it can be viewed on the site.

Specifically, the draft regulations include this section:

Establish and complete information security systems for the review and management, real-time inspection, emergency response, and the acceptance of reports for post comments, to review the content of post comments before publication, and promptly discover and address unlawful and negative information, and report it to the internet information departments.

For somewhat obvious reasons, that’s raising some concerns. As the Tech Review article linked above notes, online comments and other more real-time communications have always been a sort of loophole regarding the Great Firewall, as discussions on sensitive topics often breakthrough there, even if only to be deleted later. However, this new rule seems to be setting up a system to block even that.

There’s a need for a stand-alone regulation on comments because the vast number makes them difficult to censor as rigorously as other content, like articles or videos, says Eric Liu, a former censor for Weibo who’s now researching Chinese censorship at China Digital Times. 

“One thing everyone in the censorship industry knows is that nobody pays attention to the replies and bullet chats. They are moderated carelessly, with minimum effort,” Liu says. 

But recently, there have been several awkward cases where comments under government Weibo accounts went rogue, pointing out government lies or rejecting the official narrative. That could be what has prompted the regulator’s proposed update.

Tech Review quotes people saying that it’s unlikely (for now) that Beijing will require everyone to pre-review every comment (recognizing that’s likely to be impossible), but that it will put pressure on sites to be much more proactive, and that it could force this “feature” to be used on highly controversial topics.

It does seem that a straightforward reading of the law is that it requires sites to at least build out the functionality to pre-approve all comments if need be, even if it does not need to be on all the time.

There are some other features in the new regulations, including granting more power to who can block comments, suggesting that content creators themselves will have more power to censor comments in response to their content (rather than relying on the service’s in-house censors to do so).

Also, I note that part of these requirements would make Elon Musk and others who insist that every user should be “verified” even if their identities are not disclosed publicly. As the rules require:

Follow the principle of ‘real names on file, but whatever you want up front’ , to conduct verification of identification information for registered users, and must not provide post comment services to users whose identification information has not been verified.

So, for all of the folks out there insisting that all internet users who are commenting should have identifying information on tap, in case it’s needed, just know that you’re following in the footsteps of Chinese censors.

And, of course, the new regulations also seek to tie that verified identity to China’s infamous social credit scoring system, though amusingly this is framed as part of privacy protections.

Establish and complete systems for the protection of users’ personal information: the handling of users’ personal information shall comply with the principles of legality, propriety, necessity, and creditworthiness; disclose rules for handling personal information: giving notice of the goals and methods of handling personal information, the types of personal information to be handled, the period for retention, and other such matters; and obtain the consent of the individuals in accordance with law, except as otherwise provided by laws and administrative regulations.

The people pushing for similar ideas in Europe and the US insist that it won’t be abused, but we can look to China — and the fact that many of the proposed regulations we’re seeing today originated as part of China’s Great Firewall for censorship to see where they likely lead.

Filed Under: censorship, china, comments, free speech, real names, social credit, verification

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