New rules aim to make online platforms take more responsibility for user content

By Zhang Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/10 18:38:39

○ A new regulation on Internet news services in China has sparked controversy

○ Experts see it as the latest effort by cyberspace authorities in the past year to regulate online platforms

○ But many we-media providers are worried that it will restrict their freedom to publish articles



 

China's new regulations on the administration of Internet news services come into effect on June 1. Photo: IC



China's new regulation on the administration of Internet news services, which comes into effect on June 1, made a splash on China's social media platforms when it was announced last week.

According to Article 5 of the regulation, any group or individual that wants to provide news to the public through websites, applications, forums, blogs, microblogs, public accounts, instant messaging tools, online livestreaming and other such methods must obtain a "news information services" license. Launching an Internet news information service without a license or beyond the license's scope is banned.

The regulation's definition of "news information" includes reporting and commentary on politics, economic, military matters, foreign affairs and other such public topics.

The obliquely-worded regulation soon caused panic among China's netizens, especially "we-media" providers. "We-media" refers to online news sources run by individuals or small groups, often by non-professionals or on a part-time basis. Many fear that the difficulty of obtaining a license will mean the end of most we-media accounts.

Different understandings

Some support the law, such as "Truth Brother," who runs a Sina Weibo account with 1.33 million followers. "It's meaningful in terms of clarifying public opinion, and it will alter the fact that everyone can be self-media and disturb online space by posting things arbitrarily … I think freedom is relative, and publishing without a firm political stance will disrupt China's Internet and is irresponsible for society," he told the Global Times.

But some observers say most of the discussion about the regulations misses the point. Experts say the regulation is not targeted at we-media providers, but at the platforms themselves. One of things they point to is that the process for getting a license basically requires the applicant to have a full, professional media organization with registered premises, certain kinds of personnel and the "funds suited to the services." As this is clearly well beyond the scope of small-scale operations, experts say it shows that the regulation is not aimed directly at we-media.

"The subject of the regulation's most controversial clauses is actually social media platforms, rather than we-media accounts, either run by individuals or organizations, on these platforms. This isn't new, and the regulation is another attempt at increasing the platforms' responsibilities," Wang Sixin, a professor specializing in media law and regulations at the Communication University of China, told the Global Times.

In other words, we-media accounts will likely not need a license to publish news or commentaries, but will face tighter controls from the platforms. "The platforms will strengthen their filtering of information that is illegal, politically incorrect, hurts people's mental and physical health or worsens the Internet environment," Wang said.

In a press conference last week, an official at the National Internet Information Office told media the regulations were first drafted in 2005, but over the years needed to be revised to fit the changing times.

He said in recent years, as Internet news has developed, there has been an abundance of fake news and illegal publications. Furthermore, as new technology and applications emerge, there's a need for adjustments to regulations.





Testing the limits

Chinese news websites can be loosely divided into two groups. Some are part of the official media system or are extensions of authority-backed news agencies, such as xinhua.com, the website of China's official news agency. These websites are allowed to publish their own reporting or commentaries. The other group is what Chinese regulators refer to as "news information websites," including major Internet portals like sina.com and 163.com. According to Chinese law, these sites can only reprint news stories generated by sanctioned media outlets and are not permitted to do their own reporting.

Over the years, however, many news portals have been trying to get around these limits and publish reporting of their own. Dozens of news columns run by these websites have appeared in recent years, the most famous including 163.com's investigative journalism column "Signpost" and sohu.com's news column "hudunews." The former, in particular, has covered a range of in-depth stories about sensitive topics including the case of a school built using toxic materials in Changzhou, East China's Jiangsu Province.

As livestreaming has become more popular, the emergence of livestreaming news websites became a new front for testing the limits of the reporting ban, as many accounts livestreamed public events.

Just days after the new regulation was announced, Beijing cyberspace affairs officials gave verbal warnings to several websites including sina.com, 163.com, ifeng.com and Tencent for hosting livestreaming programs that they decided were violating the reporting ban.

This isn't the first time that the capital's cyberspace affairs authorities have cracked down on news information websites and their products. Last July, for example, it asked sina.com, sohu.com, 163.com and ifeng.com to close or rectify eight internet news columns including Signpost and hudunews. This March, it again gave warnings to five Internet portals, asking them to close or rectify nine of their news columns that violated news publishing rules.

Apart from these news websites, the authorities have also been tightening their supervision over online forums such as Baidu Tieba, the largest Chinese communication platform provided by the search engine company. This March, the cyberspace authorities criticized Baidu Tieba for hosting illegal and "unhealthy" information, and demanded it make rectifications.

Self-monitoring

"The new regulation will push the platforms to further tighten up their screening of information that's published and filter illegal content," Wang said.

The authorities' growing concern over these online platforms in the past year has already lead the platforms to invest more time and effort into monitoring content generated by their users and deleting posts that violate the rules or might cause trouble.

One of the best examples is probably WeChat, Tencent's massively popular instant messaging app. As of 2016, there were over 12 million registered WeChat public accounts, a 46.2 percent rise over 2015. That number is expected to grow to 14 million by the end of this year, says a report by iiMedia Research, a mobile Internet sector consulting firm.

In the past two years, WeChat has been tightening its terms of services. For example, accounts that try to entice or coerce readers to follow their accounts or share their articles are prohibited. Accounts spotted violating this rule twice are shut down indefinitely.

The website xiguaji.com, which monitors WeChat public accounts, has been tracking deleted accounts and posts on WeChat for over a year. Its statistics show that among the 1 million accounts that it monitors, around 20,000 to 40,000 posts are deleted each month for violating platform rules.

"We saw a rise in the number of posts being deleted in the second half of last year, peaking at 48,448 posts in November alone. This January and February, over Spring Festival, the number of posts being deleted dropped. After that it started to grow again to 31,739 in April," Qian Xi, business director of xiguaji.com, told the Global Times.

Accounts that publish illegal content face suspension, but the process is far from consistent.

In a recent report, Newrank, a big data company tracking new media and user-generated media, analyzed WeChat's suspensions. It followed the activities of a public account called "Chinese economist," which was suspended the morning after it published a commentary entitled "Huang Yiping: The Chinese economy won't survive this time" at around 8 pm on February 18. By 9 am the next morning, the account had been suspended.

Newrank then searched for the keywords in the commentary's headline and found 12 articles with the same content, but not all the accounts had been suspended. It concluded that whether an account will be suspended has no clear link to an account's number of followers or views, or whether it's the source of an article deemed unacceptable.

"So far, we're not clear exactly what factors trigger WeChat's punishments. But whether users make complaints might be a major reason," Li Lan, a technical product researcher at Newrank, told the Global Times.

 Wang Gong (pseudonym), an editor of public WeChat account Yugong Tianxia, said many we-media providers have a feeling that WeChat's supervision has been getting harsher in the past year. The account, which has been running since last September, has been publishing light news analysis and news stories on a daily basis.

Despite the growing monitoring, he says the account will not change their current course, even though they hope to make money in the long term and the changing policies might affect their profitability. "On one hand, we want to see how strictly the regulations are implemented, and on the other hand, we started out wanting to be an account on hot news topics and we don't want to change that," he told the Global Times.


Newspaper headline: Fighting fake news


Posted in: IN-DEPTH

blog comments powered by Disqus