New rules for social media

By Chang Meng Source:Global Times Published: 2014-8-8 1:03:01

Seven ‘bottom lines’ set for WeChat users

Graphics: GT

 China on Thursday passed a new rule regulating public accounts on instant messaging services, requiring real-name registration for account operators in a bid to crack down on online rumors, libel and illegal information involving pornography and violence.

The regulation, published by the State Internet Information Office (SIIO), is aimed at promoting the "healthy development of instant messaging services" and "safeguarding national security and public interests," it reads. It takes immediate effect.

Among various instant messaging services, WeChat, a popular mobile app developed by Internet technology giant Tencent, is considered to be a major target of the regulation. It currently has 5.8 million public accounts after  introducing the function in August 2012.

Operators of these public accounts include individuals, government organs, media outlets, social organizations and companies.

The new rule stipulates that operators of public accounts should register with their real names and be put on record with Internet managing authorities after the service provider's review.

It also states that users should keep "seven bottom lines," which include abiding by laws and regulations, the socialist system, national interests, the legitimate rights and interests of citizens, public order, social morality and ensure information authenticity.

The real-name registration requirement only applies to public accounts, and they can still customize their account name. Tencent has already been deploying the procedure, requesting registrants to provide a clear picture of them holding their ID card, or provide a business license for organizations, a public relations manager told the Global Times via e-mail.

Another clause in the new rule attracted wide attention, as only public accounts operated by media outlets, or those with an Internet news service certificate, can publish or repost political news. Others are not allowed to do so "without approval."

The new rule did not define "political news," while a 2005 Internet news service regulation defines it as "reports and commentaries related to political, economic, military and diplomatic affairs as well as breaking events."

Several public account operators who wrote about political and social affairs reached by the Global Times said they still need to observe the actual implementation, and called for a clearer definition as many accounts publish analysis and commentary on hot topics, other than publishing news.

"It will not have a big influence on us as we mainly focus on analysis of macro-economic and public policies. But we will pay special attention, or tone down content related to 'pure politics,' as we did," an operator of Zgtrend, a Guangzhou-based research institute that has a popular WeChat public account, told the Global Times on condition of anonymity.

However, accounts that publish unofficial historical anecdotes and political gossip are expected to be affected which might reduce content variety on the platform.

Fang Xingdong, founder of China's leading high-tech think tank, told the Global Times that these public accounts are unlikely to all shut as the rule leaves some leniency and those that provide accurate and positive analysis could be kept going "with approval."

Tencent also told the Global Times that it would not conduct massive-scale shutdowns of current accounts and hopes operators could publish content in accordance to the rule, or they will be punished accordingly.

In response to questions as to whether the new rule might be a tool to suppress freedom of speech, Xu Feng, head of mobile Internet management at the SIIO, said that it will promote the quality of instant messaging services to ensure that citizens enjoy the convenience of such services and called it the "true freedom of speech," according to an official Q&A provided by the Xinhua News Agency.

He added that a few people are using the platform to spread content related to terrorism, violence, pornography or rumors that harm others' rights and public security.

Stricter control over microblogging services like Sina Weibo was initiated in a campaign to crackdown on Internet rumors last year.

Other than limiting who can post political news, the new rule does not really interfere with the platform's development, said Fang.

The rule also encourages government organs to open public accounts to better serve public needs, which suggested that authorities also hope to utilize the powerful tool.

Tencent has also vowed to attack rumors spreading through its platform by setting up professional teams and protect users' privacy, stressing that the new rule does not apply to private messaging functions.

Tencent's shares fell by 3.46 percent to HK$128.3 ($16.55) in Hong Kong when trading closed on Thursday.

WeChat activity started to surge last year and was favored by the public for better privacy and certain immunity to censorship.

However, it also brewed a better environment for the spreading of rumors as acquaintance-based circles lack a self-cleaning function, and has triggered public complaint.

In a recent case, Amway China posted a statement on July 16, denying rumors that its albumen products contain genetically-modified ingredients, and that its senior executive "died early" after using its health products.

Pseudoscience posts, such as those declaring "microwave ovens could cause cancer," were also popular on the platform.

However, analysts also warned that it is crucial to avoid "over-management" under the new rule and set up clear boundaries, especially at the local level.

The local government in Zhaoqing, Guangdong Province, recently requested all WeChat public account owners register with police, a policy that triggered wide debate and accusations that it "went beyond the rule" by observers.

Posted in: Politics, Society

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