China wants all social media comments to be pre-reviewed before publishing
The new changes are for Provisions on the Management of Internet Post Comments Services, a regulation that first came into effect in 2017. The Cyberspace Administration is trying to bring it up-to-date five years later.
The proposed revisions primarily update and align the current version (‘comment rules’) with the language and policies that are more recent, such as new laws regarding personal information security and general content regulations.
The provisions cover a wide range of “comments,” which include replies to messages, forum posts, and “bulletchats ” (a unique way that Chinese video platforms use to display real-time comments over the video). This regulation covers all formats, including text, symbols, gifs and pictures, as well as audio and video.
There is a need for a separate regulation on comments, as they are difficult to censor as strictly as articles or videos. Eric Liu, an ex-censor at Weibo, is now studying Chinese censorship at China Digital Times.
” Everyone in the censorship industry is aware that bullet chats and replies are ignored. They are moderated with minimal effort and carelessness,” Liu says.
However, there have been a few cases in which comments made under government Weibo accounts went rogue. These comments were critical of government lies or rejected the official narrative. This could have prompted the regulator to propose an update.
Chinese social media platforms are currently at forefront of censorship work. They often actively remove posts before government and other users can see them. ByteDance employs thousands of content reviewers. They make up the largest number of employees at the company. Other companies also outsource from “censorship-for-hire” firms, including one owned by China’s party mouthpiece People’s Daily. The platforms are frequently punished for letting things slip.
Beijing is constantly improving its social media control, closing loopholes and introducing new restrictions. The vagueness of the most recent revisions raises concerns that the government might not consider practical issues. For example, if the new rule about mandating pre-publish reviews is to be strictly enforced–effectively reading billions of public messages posted by Chinese users every day–it will force the platforms to dramatically increase how many people they employ to carry out censorship. The problem is that no one knows if the government will enforce this immediately.
There’s one specific change about “Xian Shen Hou Fa ,” a censoring practice used by some Chinese social media platforms to review content before it’s even published, that has caught people’s attention. These stricter controls are only available to accounts that have violated content-censorship rules in the past or when there is ongoing heated discussion on a sensitive topic. The 2017 version limited such actions to “comments under news information,” so it didn’t need to be applied universally. The new update removes that restriction.
On social media, some Chinese users are worried that this means the practice can be expanded to cover every single comment online. the most viewed comment asks “Is this restriction necessary?”
This is a extreme interpretation of the proposed change. It would cost social media platforms astronomical amounts to censor every comment. Although Beijing may not go so far as to enforce blanket prepublish censorship, Liu believes the revisions are likely to force platforms to assume more responsibility for moderating comments sections, which have been largely ignored. Whether there is a prepublish censorship system can affect where online social protests explode. In April, a video about the Shanghai Covid lockdown only went viral on WeChat Channels but not Douyin–the Chinese version of TikTok–partly because the latter reviews every video before it’s published while the former didn’t at the time.
The regulator is now seeking public comments on the proposed revisions until July 1, 2022, and it may take many months more before they take effect. Discussions about how strict it will be enforced at this point are speculative. It is clear that China is working to fix the Great Firewall’s loopholes. Jeremy Daum says that the most recent changes are part of China’s expansion of content regulations to include user content generated via comments and other interactive features.
The changes will also increase the number of people who can censor comments online. CAC now asks that platforms share the power of censoring comments with content creators, or in Chinese internet lingo, “public account operators.” Currently, government-affiliated accounts are already empowered to do this on sites like Weibo. If the revision becomes law, creators will be able to report illegal or harmful content. Although China’s internet has been censored, there is still room for sensitive topics to be discussed. “People can play a clever game with censors, and make creative adjustments after posts are censored,” Williams Nee, Research & Advocacy Coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, says.
“However, the new system could make that next to impossible and tighten the already limited space for freedom of expression on sensitive topics even further.”
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.