Yesterday, the State Council published new draft regulations on the management of Internet information services. These are explicitly aimed at microblog platforms and related social media, following a week after the much-publicized Weibo User Pact took effect. On Tea Leaf Nation, David Wertime eloquently analyses the different aspects of the new document.
Despite the look of it, this not a sea change. The current law already assigns criminal liability to any service providers, broadly defined, who disseminate speech fitting any one of nine categories of harm. Moreover, Chinese authorities already exercise Internet control as they see fit, shutting down blogs and forums, occasionally arresting “bad actors,” and requiring Weibo, or China’s Twitter, to implement real-name registration.
Instead, it’s the message behind the law that matters, and the message to China’s social media is clear: We can shut you down. Providers of social media platforms will surely sweat when reminded by the State Council that their businesses merely exist at the pleasure of those in power. The law’s preamble now lists “protecting national safety and public interest” (维护国家安全和公共利益) as one of its objectives, and adds that which “incites illegal gatherings” (煽动非法聚集) to the category of illegal speech. This signals that Beijing is acutely aware of the potentially destabilizing power of China’s blogosphere.
I would add one more remark. By adding to the administrative burden of setting up and running Internet enterprises, the regime might endeavour to keep the number of players low. It is much easier controlling a small number of large visible enterprises than having to deal with large numbers of smaller companies. Hence, by making market access procedures more difficult, the administration puts up the pressure on social media enterprises to keep their side of the deal: permission to operate in return for toeing the political line.
I translated the draft document, as well as the accompanying explanations, and you can find them here.