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?
(Article 5) (Article 7) (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.
Below is a chart showing the major changes that occurred between the draft and the finalized regulation. We wrote on the previous draft HERE.