Governing the E-cosystem 2

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Internet culture on both sides of the Great Firewall is toxic. Despite radically different systems for regulating online content, China, like the U.S., is plagued by the spread of misinformation, leaks of personal data, bullying, fraud, and predatory behavior. ‘Fake news’ was a common phrase online in China long before Donald Trump made it his battle cry.

In the U.S., the challenge of content regulation is generally viewed as one of competing interests; namely, the desire to prevent negative impact without unduly encroaching on the freedom of speech. Online hostility and misinformation are sometimes even discussed as if they are regrettable, but unavoidable, consequences of free speech. That China, notoriously more comfortable with censorship, still suffers from many of the same issues, might mean that we are thinking about these problems in the wrong way.

This is why it is important when reading China’s content restrictions to not only condemn them on principle- although there is certainly plenty to criticize- but also to try to learn from them. Understanding the rules’ goals, as well as where and why they fall short, is not only important for understanding conditions in China, but also for refuting those who propose increased censorship and regulation as a means of cleaning up the internet elsewhere.

The New Rules.

China’s new Provisions on the Governance of the Online Information Content Ecosystem come across as earnest and heavy-handed, an example of how hard it can be to draft meaningfully tailored content restrictions. Like an earlier draft, the Provisions break content into three categories: encouraged positive content, discouraged negative content, and illegal content- each summarized in the chart below.

The vague categories read like something that might be drafted by a high-school parent-teacher association trying to articulate clear rules for the student paper, where they would really prefer to just say ‘stop all the bad stuff, do more good stuff.” And who doesn’t sometimes wish the internet had such a button?

EncouragedNegativeIllegal

  1. Spreading and explaining Party doctrine
  2. Spreading Party action
  3. Spreading economic and social achievement
  4. Spreading the Core Socialist Values
  5. Guidance to the public on social concerns
  6. Increasing international influence
  7. Other positive and wholesome content

(Article 5)

  1. Sensationalizing headlines
  2. Excessive celebrity intrigue and gossip
  3. Improper comments on tragedies
  4. Sexual innuendo, suggestion, or enticement
  5. Gore and horror
  6. Incitement of discrimination
  7. Coarse or vulgar language and behavior
  8. Bad habits or dangerous activity that might be imitated by minors
  9. Other content with a negative impact to the online information ecosystem

(Article 7)

  1. Content opposing the basic principles set forth in the Constitution;
  2. Content endangering national security, divulging State secrets, subverting the national regime, and destroying national unity;
  3. Content harming the nation’s honor and interests;
  4. Content demeaning or denying the deeds and spirit of heroes and martyrs;
  5. Content promoting terrorism or extremism,
  6. Content inciting ethnic hatred or ethnic discrimination, or destroying ethnic unity;
  7. Content undermining the nation’s policy on religions, promoting cults and superstitions;
  8. Dissemination of rumors, disrupting economic or social order;
  9. Obscenity, erotica, gambling, violence, murder, terror or instigating crime;
  10. Content insulting or defaming others, infringing other persons’ honor, privacy, or other lawful rights and interests;
  11. Other content prohibited by laws or administrative regulations.

(Article 6)

The ‘illegal’ content list is largely incorporated from article 15 of the Measures for Managing Internet Information Services issued in 2000, with only two additions. Item 4 on protecting the honor of the nation’s heroes and martyrs is added to reflect a new law on this issue, and item 5 is included to reflect the 2015 Counter-terrorism Law and National Security Law. While these items of ‘illegal content’ are distressingly vague and easily abused, there is an existing legal basis for banning them.

The items of ‘Negative Content’ more closely resemble content restrictions previously issued for professional broadcasters and content creators. While these might have been workable standards for regulating a small number of stations who can become familiar with the rules, through routine practice. it is harder to imagine how they will play out in the more interactive online setting where every citizen can become a content creator. Imagine trying to understand whether a blog or forum post’s title is too sensational, or trying to track down all ‘sexual innuendo’ online in twitter posts and comments sections.
The prior draft articulated the specific punishments for violations of these rules, but this document now only references other laws and regulations. These include more specific guidance for content control in a number of online areas released over the last few years, including for article comment sections, forums, chat groups, A/V posting services, livestreaming platforms, microblogs, and of course the news.
This newest document on the online ecosystem integrates many of these previously disparate areas.
Changes since the draft

Below is a chart showing the major changes that occurred between the draft and the finalized regulation. We wrote on the previous draft HERE.

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3 Comments

  1. “This is why it is important when reading China’s content restrictions to not only condemn them on principle…”

    The author must be invoking to a principle that is universal in time, space and across cultures.

    Which such principle, pray tell, is that?

    For those who imagine that censorship is inimical to democracy I would recommend they reflect on the advice of Lee Kwan Yew, who maintained that the opposite is the case: “The Philippines press enjoys all the freedoms of the US system but fails the people: a wildly partisan press helped Philippines politicians flood the marketplace of ideas with junk and confuse and befuddle the people so that they could not see what their vital interests were in a developing country.

    “And, because vital issues like economic growth and equitable distribution were seldom discussed, they were never tackled and the democratic system malfunctioned. Look at Taiwan and South Korea: their free press runs rampant and corruption runs riot.

    “The critic itself is corrupt yet the theory is, if you have a free press, corruption disappears. Now I’m telling you, that’s not true. Freedom of the press, freedom of news critics, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government.” – A Third World Perspective on the Press. RH Lee Kwan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore. C-SPAN, APRIL 14, 1988

    • It’s funny because you are right in principle. But in practice the situation in PRC under the CCP is much worse. So much so that Tacitus would be blushing seeing that it has fallen into Tacitus’ trap – people essentially just believe the opposite of what the govt is espousing via state media.

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