China is making a comprehensive upgrade to its internet services regulation, giving the 20-year-old rules teeth as Beijing authorities seek to crack down on harmful online activities and fake news.
The Cyberspace Administration of China published on Friday a draft of the updated version of its Regulation on Internet Information Service to solicit public feedback – a step that means the current rules will soon be replaced. Premier Zhu Rongji enacted the original regulation in September 2000, when the country’s internet services were very limited and China was not yet a member at the World Trade Organization.
The draft, which accepts public feedback until February 7, is designed to “ensure the healthy and orderly development of internet information services”, as well as “maintain national security and public interest”, according to the cyberspace administration.
“The updated regulation responds to the current prominent problems on the internet, such as internet fraud, online financial information dissemination and so on,” said You Yunting, senior partner at Shanghai Debund Law Offices. “It has made targeted updates to clarify the responsibilities of internet service providers.”
Some of the new rules lay out principles rather than details, You noted, which could make them challenging to implement. “Although this draft is more detailed than the original regulation and added a lot of punitive content, it is still essentially a regulation of ideological supervision,” he said.
The new draft triples the length of the original regulation by the number of words and doubles the number of articles to 54. It also clearly defines for the first time the types of products that fall under information services, including search engines, instant messaging, websites, online payments, e-commerce and software downloads.
The draft adds new clauses that specifically target emerging and rampant forms of fraud on China’s internet, including identity theft and fake news.
The draft explicitly prohibits releasing or helping to release false information. Helping others delete, block or replace online information for a fee is also banned, as is mass registration and selling online accounts for profit. Artificially inflating the number of clicks and transaction volumes, something China cracked down on last year, was also mentioned.
The new draft also broadened the definition of harmful online information. In addition to information that endangers national security, leaks state secrets or subverts state power, the new draft would ban online information that “disrupts financial market order”. False information about disasters, epidemics, emergencies and food and drug safety are also banned.
On top of possible criminal charges and other punishments, websites spreading such information could be shut down. Individuals working for such sites could be held liable, with fines of up to 100,000 yuan (US$15,458).
Compared with the 2000 version, the new draft highlights Beijing’s intention to ensure online activities do not compromise China’s national security interests. The country now has 940 million internet users, up from about 22.5 million at the end of 2000. In those two decades, a number of big tech companies have emerged in China such as TikTok owner ByteDance and social media and gaming behemoth Tencent, turning the internet into an essential platform for shopping, communication and various social activities.
The regulation applies to any internet services designed for users in China, including those offered by Chinese individuals and companies through overseas servers.
According to Article 3, the government has the power to “monitor, prevent and dispose of online illegal and criminal activities that endanger China’s cyberspace security and order, or infringe on the lawful rights and interests of Chinese citizens”.
The draft also empowers China’s internet regulators to take “technical measures and other necessary measures” to block information from abroad deemed illegal by domestic law, formalising censorship from China’s Great Firewall, which has long blocked access to many of the world’s top websites, including Facebook and Google.
Chinese authorities have been tightening their grip on the internet in recent years, broadly censoring content it deems inappropriate, including pornography, gambling, fake news and political dissent.
Douyin, the Chinese version of short video app TikTok that is also owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, became the latest tech platform to be penalised when it was fined the maximum amount for spreading “obscene, pornographic and vulgar information”, according to a statement released today by the National Office Against Pornographic and Illegal Publications.
“The rules are ancient in terms of the tech world, and China’s internet is far different now compared to back then,” said Paul Haswell, a partner at international law firm Pinsent Masons. “We can also see it as ensuring both a check on and a level of control over Chinese Big Tech.”
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