The new changes concern Provisions relating to the management of Internet services for the publication of commentsa regulation that came into force in 2017. Five years later, the Cyberspace Administration wants to bring it up to date.
“The proposed revisions primarily update the current version of the ‘Comment Rules’ to bring them into line with the language and policies of the most recent authorities, such as new privacy laws, data security and general content regulations,” said Jeremy Daum, Senior Fellow at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center.
The provisions cover a wide range of “comments,” including anything related to forum posts, replies, messages left on public forums, and “bullet chats” (an innovative way that video platforms in China use to display real-time commentary in addition to the video). All formats including text, symbols, gifs, images, audio and videos fall under this policy.
Autonomous regulations on comments are needed because their large number makes them difficult to censor as rigorously as other content, such as articles or videos, says Eric Liu, a former Weibo censor who is currently studying Chinese censorship at the China Digital Times.
“One thing everyone in the censorship industry knows is that no one pays attention to replies and bulleted discussions. They are moderated recklessly, with minimal effort,” Liu says.
But recently, there have been several embarrassing instances where comments under government Weibo accounts have gone rogue, pointing out government lies or dismissing the official narrative. This could be what prompted the update proposed by the regulator.
Chinese social platforms are currently at the forefront of censorship work, often actively deleting posts before the government and other users can even see them. ByteDance employs thousands of content reviewers, which make up the largest number of employees in the company. Other firms also subcontract to “censorship for pay” firms, including one owned by the Chinese party’s mouthpiece, People’s Daily. Platforms are frequently punished for letting things slip away.
Beijing is constantly refining its control of social media, fixing loopholes and introducing new restrictions. But the vagueness of the latest revisions has people worried the government is ignoring the practical challenges. For example, if the new rule on mandatory pre-posting reviews is to be strictly enforced – effectively reading billions of public messages posted by Chinese users every day – it will force platforms to dramatically increase the number of people they use to perform censorship. The tricky question is that no one knows if the government intends to implement this immediately.