New rules in China concerning content published by social media users are more than just another tool in China’s censorship kit. Censorship is a necessary part of any story about speech, online or offline, in China, but there are other, broader, issues at play here, including the responsibility of online information platforms in content regulation.
There is an increasing global awakening to the immense influence that such platforms wield. Amnesty International has called for Meta to answer for its role in enabling the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar via profit-motivated “hate-spiraling algorithms” that enflamed tensions. US congress members have described TikTok as addictive “digital fentanyl”, social media that is readily “weaponized” by China and can “influence elections.” Twitter unilaterally denied President Trump access to its platform, his preferred method for public statements and even diplomatic messaging.
The problems of the rapid spread of misinformation and hatred may be global, but there is far from a uniform approach to addressing them. In the U.S., article 230 of the Communications Decency Act grants broad immunity to platform operators both for content published by platform users and for their own decisions to remove or restrict platform content. As seen in this latest document, China is taking a different path with specific duties for platforms and users to verify information, refute misinformation, and even list credentials for offering professional opinions online.
As I’ve provided a translation and made an infographic listing the major rules, I’m not going to go through the items individually, but there are a few things to keep in mind as you read through them.
Domestic Context: Not all of these provisions are entirely new in China, and they were preceded by a related special action announced in March. Internet regulation in China often proceeds through issuing regulations on specific technologies (such as instant messaging, livestreaming, online fiction, and even user comment sections) that incorporate and apply broader rules to the specific context. Some of the rules here, such as on labeling computer-generated images, have been previously called for in rules on generative AI.
Global Context: In addition to considering how these rules fit into China’s regulatory scheme, think about how they compare to global rules, both in law and platform agreements. If similar, does the Chinese context raise unique concerns, if different, how so? Are requirements to algorithmically promote information to debunk rumors stronger than what other platforms have imposed?
Will it work?: A few concerns about social media influence were raised above, such as misinformation, hate speech, and foreign influence. Combatting misinformation is clearly China’s priority here although recent draft rules on “cyberviolence” show that hate speech and bullying are also major concerns. These problems haven’t been resolved anywhere, and it’s useful to consider the practical efficacy of these measures regardless of where they are being implemented. It’s interesting for example to note that despite censorship and sometimes harsh penalties for speech, China still struggles to control misinformation, suggesting that those tools won’t solve the problem alone.
At the same time, there are other potentially conflicting concerns that also need to be considered: leaving platforms room to develop (and profit), and users’ rights to send and receive information. It’s no surprise that China is willing to deprioritize the interests of businesses and individuals in combatting misinformation which is viewed as a potential threat to security and stability, but what is the proper balance of these interests? Similarly, it’s not surprising that in China the state takes a proactive role in drawing such lines, but how much discretion should individual platforms have? Who represents the concerns of individual users?
Chinese experts are generally much more keenly aware of international practice than their foreign counterparts are aware of Chinese practice. Chinese policy is not being made in a vacuum, and our consideration or reporting on Chinese policy should likewise not exist in a vacuum. China’s rules in this area not only directly impact its own enormous population, but are part of an ongoing exploration of new global challenges. Online platforms cross borders, making it even more important to remain aware of other nation’s rules.